A new study from Northwestern Medicine research suggests that while efforts to educate young gay men about safe-sex may be getting through, young gay men in serious relationships may not realize the need to keep using condoms and are in fact six times more likely to have unprotected sex even though they may still risk contracting HIV.
The study findings dovetail with recent Centers for Disease Control data showing the majority of HIV transmissions occur in serious relationships. Being in a committed relationship more strongly influenced whether a gay man had unprotected sex than using drugs with a partner, the latter doubling the risk. A new shift to focus research on committed gay couples is partly a result of the burgeoning same-sex marriage movement, Mustanski said.
The Northwestern study looked at the behaviors of a diverse population of 122 young men (16 to 20 years old when the study began) over two years in Chicago and the suburbs. The men are a subset of participants in Mustanski’s ongoing longitudinal study on the sexual and mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. The study, named Project Q2, is the longest running longitudinal study of LGBT youth ever conducted.
“Being in a serious relationship provides a number of mental and physical health benefits, but it also increases behaviors that put you at risk for HIV transmission,” said Brian Mustanski, associate professor in medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of a paper on the research, published online in the journal Health Psychology. “Men who believe a relationship is serious mistakenly think they don’t need to protect themselves.”
This is likely because committed gay men feel they are no longer at risk of contracting HIV if they and their partner believe they are HIV-negative due to a history of practicing safe-sex. However, because relatively few people undergo HIV checks frequently, they may still be at risk.
Estimates suggest that around 80 percent of young gay men who are HIV positive are unaware of that fact because they do not go for regular checks. “It isn’t enough to ask your partner his HIV status,” Mustanski said. “Instead, both people in a serious, monogamous couple relationship should go and receive at least two HIV tests before deciding to stop using condoms.”
As such, the study points out a need for greater outreach to young male couples who traditionally are not targeted in safe-sex campaigns where the focus tends to be on men who have multiple sexual partners. “This is one population that has really been left behind.” Mustankski comments. “We should be focusing on serious relationships.”
In order to reach that population, Mustanski plans to create two new video campaigns aimed specifically at gay youth that will offer advice on healthy relationships and HIV prevention. The videos, due for release in the summer, will be available at www.impactprogram.org.