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Some men are mentally primed for unsafe sex. The threat of catching a disease doesn't cool their desire, as it does for most people, and blue moods or stress can send them cruising for casual partners, suggests a Kinsey Institute study.
There's very little known about how personality and sexual arousal habits affect the likelihood of adults pursuing risky sex, says John Bancroft, Kinsey Institute director. His study of 1,500 gay and heterosexual men identifies a minority -- roughly 10% to 20% --who are most likely to engage in sex that could threaten their lives.
The report on 589 gay men will be published in the December issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior. The findings on straight men will be published in 2004, Bancroft says. Results for both groups are similar, he says. All men filled out questionnaires on arousal, personality and sexual experience.
''For most of us, the way our bodies are set up probably makes it easier to do the right thing,'' Bancroft says. When depressed or stressed, 40% to 45% have less appetite for sex, and about the same percentage feel no change, past studies show.
But a minority feel more aroused when they're upset. In Bancroft's study, these men did more ''cruising'' for casual sex partners, many of whom they didn't know well.
Sex that could lead to a disease or unwanted pregnancy causes many men to lose erections. Fear seems to turn them off, Bancroft says. The men who didn't have problems under these risky conditions also were more likely to practice unsafe sex, such as anal intercourse or not using condoms. ''They get excited despite the threat,'' he says.
Indeed, the threat might be a turn-on. In the study, men who scored high in ''sensation-seeking''--thriving on adventure -- were most into risky sex.
For these men, public health campaigns stressing ''safe sex'' could backfire, says Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist who pioneered study of the ''Type T'' or risk-taking personality. ''They don't want 'safe.' That takes the thrill out of it.'' Instead, such risk takers should try to channel their thrill-seeking elsewhere -- climbing mountains, bungee-jumping or other adventures, Farley says.
It's unknown if women who take sexual risks are primed in the same way as men. The Kinsey Institute recently started a similar study with women and men.
Men who respond to depression with casual sex ''are trying to self-medicate, and they may be changing their brain chemistry,'' says psychologist Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
These men may be using sex to get a desired rush of endorphins, the ''feel good'' brain chemicals, Coleman says. Genetic vulnerability and childhood sexual abuse can lead to risky adult sex. ''We see these kinds of men in our clinic all the time, and many have been abused as children. We know that this trauma can alter the chemistry of the brain,'' he says.
HIV-prevention workers and public health campaigns would be far more effective if they emphasized how mental health affects sexual risk-taking, Coleman says.
''Nobody is predestined for dangerous sex. But telling them, 'Just use a condom' isn't enough to stop the behavior.''
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