In a turnaround on the usual stereotype of macho, testosterone-laden guys making risky life choices, a new study finds that young men with higher levels of this sex hormone are more likely to accept safe-sex practices.
The research focused on a population of 18- and 19-year-old men in their first year of college, a time when many are just beginning their sexual lives, said study researcher Sari van Anders, a behavioral neuroendocrinologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The study found that men with higher testosterone levels were more likely to have an accepting attitude toward condoms and protected sex. The finding may reveal that for young college men, insisting on safe sex could feel like a riskier move than unprotected sex, van Anders told LiveScience.
"There's this body of research showing that people often view safer sex behaviors and people who engage in them in a somewhat negative light," van Anders told LiveScience. Thus, she said, the "social risk" of insisting on using a condom might require more boldness and confidence than having unprotected sex. [6 Gender Myths Busted]
Testosterone is linked to boldness and confidence, as well as in perilous decisions, such as making high-risk financial bets. But the concept of risk is culturally defined, van Anders said. In the case of sex, the obvious risk would be of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STI). But for some people, those risks seem far-off and unlikely, she said, while the risk of having a partner think you're untrustworthy or already infected if you insist on using a condom is very immediate.
"Do you care more about the possibility of acquiring an STI, which might seem unlikely despite all these educational efforts, or do you care more about your partner right now, potentially thinking negative things about you?" van Anders said, adding that cultural ideas about sexuality can actually influence how hormones such as testosterone are linked to attitudes and behaviors.
As part of a larger study on hormones and behavior in college freshmen, van Anders and her colleagues asked 78 men, who were mostly heterosexual and from high-income families, to answer questionnaires about their health, sexual activity and attitudes toward condom use and other safe-sex practices. Each guy provided a saliva sample, from which the researchers extracted a measurement of testosterone levels.
Of the participants, 46 percent had already engaged in vaginal or anal sex, while the rest had not. But because the researchers were studying attitudes about safe sex and not actual safe-sex behaviors, they were able to include even sexually inexperienced men in the study.
Testosterone and safe sex
The results revealed that men with higher testosterone levels had more positive attitudes about safe sex. They were also more likely to say they'd use a condom even if there were obstacles such as social stigma in the way, the researchers reported online Nov. 14 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The lower-testosterone men showed less acceptance toward condoms, and they were less likely to say they'd try to use a condom in a situation where doing so was awkward or otherwise difficult.
The results were strongest for men who were sexually active, possibly because their attitudes were based on actual behaviors, van Anders said, though more research would be needed to test this.
"One of the things that is interesting about these results is that they're one of the first to demonstrate a link between higher testosterone and less risk-taking in any domain," she said.
Because environment can also alter hormones, van Anders urged caution against assuming testosterone causes safer sex attitudes. It's also possible that men get a boost in ego — and testosterone — from safe-sex practices, because it marks them as knowledgeable about sex and bumps up their social status, or simply because sexuality itself can increase testosterone. Testosterone is linked to status and reward, van Anders said.
The research is preliminary, van Anders said, and she and her colleagues plan to investigate whether testosterone is linked to actual behaviors, not just attitudes. They're also interested in finding out whether the testosterone-safe sex link holds up in more diverse groups of people.
"Perhaps safer sex seems especially risky and status-oriented for college-age straight-identified men who are just starting out," van Anders said. "There might be a different association in groups where safe sex doesn't require boldness, so social identity might be a big factor."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.