Risky Drinking, Risky Sex: A National Study of New Zealand University Students
Sexual risk taking and heavy alcohol use coexist in many populations of young people. A better understanding of the role of alcohol in sexual behaviors with health risks will inform preventive strategies. This study aimed to estimate the associations of risky sexual behavior with usual drinking pattern, with beliefs that alcohol will positively affect sexual experiences, and with drinking at the time of the sexual event.
We conducted a cross-sectional web-based survey of randomly selected university students on 8 New Zealand campuses in April 2009. Event-level data (drinking, partner type, and condom use at last sexual intercourse) were collected along with contextual data (usual alcohol consumption [AUDIT-C score], history of binge drinking, alcohol-related sexual enhancement expectancies). Regression models were used to estimate associations and potential mediation.
The response rate was 50.6% (n = 2,921). After survey weighting, of those respondents who had ever had sex, 32% reported they had been drinking and 56% reported using a condom at last sex; 10.7% reported that their last sexual intercourse was with a nonregular partner and without a condom (“risky sex”) (12.3% of men; 9.8% of women; p = 0.159). For both men and women, alcohol–sex expectancy scores and current drinking (AUDIT-C) scores were independently associated with amount of alcohol at last sex. For both men and women, the association of current drinking or expectancy with risky sex was mediated by alcohol at last sex.
Of the complex factors that contribute to risky sexual behavior and negative sexual health outcomes, heavy drinking appears to be important and is potentially modifiable. Addressing environmental determinants of hazardous drinking is likely to reduce negative sexual health outcomes among university students and other young people. Continuing promotion of condom use is also necessary, and further integration of health promotion activities in alcohol and sexual health is warranted.