More time in school may not always lead to smarter decisions: College women use condoms less and less frequently over the course of their freshman year, new research finds.
The study revealed links between such factors as grade-point average and binge drinking and condom use, finding that young women with lower GPAs and more binging used condoms less and less frequently over time. The findings could help public health experts to encourage condom use in this demographic, the researchers reported online Jan. 11 in the Journal of Sex Research.
"College women often engage in serial monogamy, resulting in multiple partners during the college years, and they are often unaware of their partners' risk," study leader Jennifer Walsh, a researcher at The Miriam Hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine in Rhode Island, said in a statement. "This makes continued condom use important for women's health."
Researchers have long known that risky behaviors go together. A teen who drinks heavily, for example, is more likely to engage in unprotected sex. But no one had ever examined condom use changes in the first year of college, a formative time for sexual behavior.
As part of a larger National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study on health behaviors in college freshmen, Walsh and her colleagues collected monthly condom-use reports from 279 female freshmen from a Northeastern University. The women reported every month how often they used condoms during sex, on a five-point scale of "never" to "always." The women also provided information on their socioeconomic status, drug and alcohol use, grades and other personal factors.
The results revealed that the women started out with moderate to high levels of condom use, but their overall use decreased by about 10 percent over the course of the first year of college. The decrease held across all types of sexual relationships, whether long term or not. [Busted: 6 Gender Myths]
African-American women and women with risky behaviors such as having more sexual partners were less likely than Caucasians and women with fewer partners to use condoms at the beginning of the study. Women were also less likely to start out using condoms when they strongly believed that drinking alcohol would result in unsafe sex no matter what.
Over time, the women who dropped condom use were those with lower high-school GPAs, lower socioeconomic status, and more binge drinking. Increased use of alternative contraception such as the pill was associated with decreased use of condoms, which could be a problem given that the pill and other hormonal contraceptives do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases, the researchers wrote.
The research will be published in a forthcoming print issue of the Journal of Sex Research.
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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.