Exposure to Community Violence Increases Sexual Risk Taking in Women

Sexually risky behavior can lead to many negative outcomes, including violence, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies. Women who engage in sexually risky behavior are at increased risk for all of these situations. Therefore, identifying the factors that influence a woman’s sexual risk taking is essential for communities and health experts. Previous research has suggested a link between a woman’s childhood maltreatment (CM) and adult sexual risk taking. Additionally, some evidence exists that indicates a woman who has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) or has been exposed to violence within her community (ECV) has a high chance of taking risks sexually. Although these experiences often overlap for some women, identifying how each of these unique events affects a woman’s sexual behavior individually and together was the focus of a study conducted by Jennifer L. Walsh of the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at the Miriam Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University.

For her study, Walsh enlisted 481 women who were being treated for STDs. The women were primarily African American and were from a low-income community. Walsh assessed the women for previous history of violence and current sexual risk-taking behaviors and found that the participants had higher rates of all types of violence than women in the general population. Although having experienced one form of violence increased the risk of having experienced another form, ECV appeared to have the largest effect on risky sexual behavior. This finding suggests that women who have witnessed violence within their communities may be desensitized to the negative effects of risky situations. Additionally, women in violent communities are likely to choose sexual partners from those same communities. This means that both partners have a higher probability of having been exposed to violence, which increases risk-taking behaviors. This desensitization is evident in the high levels of substance abuse reported by the women. For instance, although violence and substance abuse are seen as unacceptable, the women with the highest levels of sexual risk taking were the ones who had the most exposure to both community violence and drug use. Walsh believes these findings help disentangle the factors that can lead to sexually risky behavior in women. She added, “These results suggest the importance of assessing and addressing violence in the context of sexual risk reduction interventions.”

Walsh, J. L., Senn, T. E., Carey, M. P. (2012). Exposure to different types of violence and subsequent sexual risk behavior among female sexually transmitted disease clinic patients: A latent class analysis. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027716

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  • Latefa


    April 11th, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    whoa, now that’s a statistic that should make the African American sit up and take notice. Too many of our young people are exposed to this kind of violence every day- do we really wnat to continue to set them up for failure by allowing this to remain a continuing habit within so may of our lower income communities?

  • juliette


    April 12th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    But in so many of these cases it is not like you can decrease the violence that they see because it is from within the community that they have grown up in and this is what they have seen. But what we can do is to teach them better ways to deal with being in the midst of this violence, that they don’t have to become a part of that dangerous cycle of bad behavior too.

  • Solomon


    April 12th, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    This feels like recycled information in that these are things that many of us in lower income communities have felt and known and seen for a long time now but have not known how to raise awareness and stop the behavior. I am sorry if that seems a little snide, but this is nothing new. Our females in the community who are raised in this hard environment throw caution to the wind when it comes to choosing their partners and practicing sexual responsibility. For them that is not a priority. Most often it is about having a man in thei lives because so many of them did not have a father figure growing up. Sometimes this is what it all boils down to. Pretty simple to figure that part out, but definitely harder to come upwith a solution.

  • sonia hill

    sonia hill

    April 13th, 2012 at 6:34 PM

    These are women who have been used and abused by others for so long that they have given up on themselves.

    People in their lives have told them for a long time that they aren’t worth much and that they will never be good for anything? So they have begun to fulfill those beliefs that others have about them.

    This is nothing new. We have all encountered those who have been beaten down by life and their circimstances. But what we need to make an effort to remember is that they have already given up on themselves- they don’t need the rest of us to give up on them too.

  • LH


    April 14th, 2012 at 1:08 AM

    You know at times I feel like all the bad things happen to the same set of people.As it is evident here,low income,substance abuse,violence,risky sexual behavior-it is all happening to the same set of people.

    But what this also means is that putting an end to even one or two of those things will help the other aspects as well. I just hope such people are able to find the right support and means to pull themselves out of such misery.

  • connie max

    connie max

    April 14th, 2012 at 11:40 AM

    It is all such a vicious circle that it is difficult to know where to make it stop and how to get to a point where it will.
    That doesn’t mean that we can give up, but it does nean that a solution is not to be found overnight. And we have to remember that what works for one group of women in a community may not work for another.

  • Janet


    April 15th, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    For most of these types of cases we have to realize that they are many layers deep. They are like that onion skin, layer upon layer of different things going on underneath. The real kicker is that just when you think that you have solved and resolved one thing, there is always going to be something else. That is why sometimes the best person to deal with this kind of community dynamic is someone who has been there, grew up in that environment, who can understand the pressures and expectations, yet who has been able to make it out the other side. These are the people who can give the most back because at the root of it all they really know what these women are going through.

  • dajuan james

    dajuan james

    April 16th, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    And how are the increased numbers of STDs and HIV being handled? You would think that we should have a handle on this by now but they continue to cycle in and out of the public conscience.
    I know that funding to treat some of these can come and go, but no one should have to suffer with this in their lives without the right medical health care.
    Again, another issue for debate that is not going to be solved very easily.

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