NORTHWESTERN (US) — Gay young men in serious relationships are six times more likely to have unprotected sex than those who hook up with casual partners.
The finding, published in the journal Health Psychology, points to the importance of directing HIV prevention toward young gay couples—who account for nearly 70 percent of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in adolescents and young adults in the U.S. and who also have the highest increase in new HIV/AIDS infections.
“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,” says Brian Mustanski, associate professor in medical social sciences at Northwestern University. “Men who believe a relationship is serious mistakenly think they don’t need to protect themselves.”
About 80 percent of gay young men who are HIV positive don’t know it, because they aren’t being tested frequently enough. “It isn’t enough to ask your partner his HIV status,” Mustanski says. “Instead, both people in a serious, monogamous couple relationship should go and receive at least two HIV tests before deciding to stop using condoms.
“We need to do greater outreach to young male couples. This is one population that has really been left behind. We should be focusing on serious relationships.”
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 influences whether a gay man has 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 says.
The study looks 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 Project Q2, the longest running longitudinal study ever conducted on the sexual and mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
Studying the health of sexual and gender minorities has become a new priority for the federal government. In March, the Institute of Medicine issued a report stating researchers need to engage LGBT populations in health studies.
To meet that goal, Northwestern recently entered a partnership with the Center on Halsted, the largest social service center in the Midwest for the LGBT community.
The Impact Program, Mustanski’s research program on the sexual and physical health of sexual minorities, will reside in the Center on Halsted, which has a large HIV testing program and youth program. The move will facilitate research with the LGBT community.
“This collaboration gives us a chance to learn from the staff of the Center about emerging issues in the community, so that we can make those issues a research priority,” Mustanski says.
“And we can share our latest findings on prevention and healthy relationships with the staff, so they can immediately apply that to their services. There is a lot that we can learn from each other.”
The research was supported by a grant from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the William T. Grant Foundation and the David Bohnett Foundation.
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