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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