(49%) of participants reported being in a serious relationship at the time of
asking, defined as having “someone you feel committed to above all others”, and
80% reported having had at least one over the study period. Twelve per cent had
had a female partner (serious or otherwise) during this time.
Despite commitment being
reported frequently, truly long-term relationships were not common: only 8% of
participants reported having the same partner six months later. During the
18-month study period 20% of participants reported no ‘serious’ relationship,
23% one, 27% two, and 28% three or more, to a maximum of five.
One factor that may be
important for HIV transmission was that, in this gay youth group, the majority
of participants’ partners were older than they were – on average two years
relationships was not uncommon – 11% reported being ‘hit, slapped, punched or
hurt’ by their partner – but non-consensual sex less so – only two individuals
reported forced sex.
The study found an average
of 5.74 episodes of unprotected sex within each sexual partnership they
Being in a relationship regarded as serious was, by a long way, the strongest
predictor of having unprotected sex. This was 7.82 times more likely to happen within
a serious relationship than in a casual one (a 682% increase), and was highly
statistically significant (p=<0.001).
This association became
even more significant when the 12% of partnerships that were with women were
eliminated: unprotected sex was ten times more likely within male/male
relationships regarded as serious than in ones not thought so.
Two other factors were
associated with more than twice the risk of unprotected sex but were less
significant. Participants reporting sex with a woman were 2.9 times more likely
to report unprotected sex, but this finding was not statistically significant and
could have been due to chance (p=0.25). Forced sex was associated with a 5.5
times greater risk of reporting unprotected sex but, while this was
statistically significant, as reported above, forced sex was uncommon.
Having a relationship that
lasted more than six months increased the risk of unprotected sex by 62%, drug use prior to sex by 45%, and violence within the relationship by 88%.
Unprotected sex was related
to the age of partners. There was a 20% increased likelihood of unprotected sex per
one-year increase in a partner’s age, relative to the participant, and
unprotected sex was six times more common with partners who were five or more
years older. A recent
US study (Hurt) found that having a partner five or more years older than themselves
doubled their risk of HIV infection. Given
that HIV prevalence in gay men increases sharply during the early 20s and
especially in African men, this may be a major contributing factor in HIV
The researchers in their introduction
note that relationships can be ‘serious’ for negative as well as positive
reasons: people can feel trapped in a relationship because they feel dominated
or because they perceive no-one else is available, as well as because they want
the relationship to last.
They tested the influence of these emotional factors
and found that while “wanting the relationship to last” wasassociated with unprotected sex (twice the risk), feeling
trapped within a relationship was not. If the relationship was known to be open
(partner having sex with others), unprotected sex was 32% less likely.
was a hint that power dynamics might influence safer sex choices in
that unprotected sex was 32% more likely if participants reported that their
partner “usually got his/her way” in disputes, though this was only marginally