by Robin Slaw and Nicole Gallo
We are Nicole Gallo, a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, interning at Planned Parenthood this summer, and Robin Slaw, a sexual health educator with Planned Parenthood. After a discussion about the premiere of Jersey Shore last week, we wanted to write an article about alcohol and sex and how they are (or are not) related. We published a short survey (questions at the end) and sent it via survey monkey, Facebook and email to everyone we know, and got a great response: 48 responses, from adults ages 18 to 73. We found some interesting generational differences, but surprisingly (or perhaps not) there were more similarities than not. When alcohol and sex intersected, problems occurred, no matter which decade they were young adults in.
According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 86% of unmarried people ages 18 to 29 are sexually active. Among the group polled by the National Campaign, nearly half of those who are in a sexual relationship either don’t use contraception at all or use it inconsistently, and almost 20% of all respondents predict that they’ll have unprotected sex within the next three months.
The result? Seven in 10 pregnancies in the 18-to-29 age group are unintended, and men and women in their 20s have among the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) of any age group, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.
In the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States from the Center for Disease Control, nationwide, 72% of high school teens have had at least one drink in their lives, and 42% of those teens are current drinkers; 24% of them are binge drinkers (five or more drinks within a couple hours in the last month before the survey). Among sexually active teens (34%) one quarter of those drank alcohol or used drugs before last sexual intercourse. For unplanned pregnancies among high school aged teens, 87% were unplanned. Our high school teens are setting up patterns that will follow them into young adulthood, establishing behaviors that put them at risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research on “Binge Drinking and Risky Sex Among College Students”, binge drinkers (defined as more than 5 drinks consecutively or in a few hours) are “more likely to have sex with multiple partners within a relatively short time period.” In the author’s study of “never-married four-year college students, 46% of respondents binge drank in the past month. Even among those who did not binge drink, 54% had sex in the past three months, and 12% of the sexually active had sex with at least two different partners during that time. However, the corresponding percentages among binge drinkers, 68% for any sex and 25% for multiple partners, are considerably higher.” The author found inconsistent use of condoms during binge drinking and multiple partners, which would indicate a higher probability of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
Here’s what we found out!
Yes, drinking does have an effect on the sex lives of young adults. We heard stories about lowered inhibitions that allowed sexual contact that was regretted later. We read stories about teens and young adults who had forced sexual contact because of drinking or drugs, sometimes because they passed out, sometimes because a partner was much more aggressive than normal because of drinking. Perhaps the saddest story we read was about a younger sibling, out drinking with older teens, who was pregnant at ten years old, and then again at twelve years old.
We found little gender differences in how alcohol and sex mixed. Both men and women who responded to the survey indicated that they or their friends had sexual contact while drinking that they later regretted. Many stories involved parties and gang rapes; a few were sexual incidents with friends or friends’ partners that caused difficulties after the fact. Several college students pointed out that alcohol also left them or their friends less aware and less likely to notice when ruffies [sic] or date rape drugs were used.
From a 40 yr old woman:
At 20 years old, I absolutely could not discuss safer sex. I wanted to, but it was simply too embarrassing and too…nerdy. Too preachy. And, I didn’t want to stop what I was doing just because of what I saw as a slight risk of a curable infection. If no condom meant no sex, then I sure as hell wasn’t going to make an issue out of it.
– … about her friends drinking & having sex: They seemed caught between wanting to be “good” and wanting to have sex, and drinking made the decision for them.
A woman (to whom I’m related) was out drinking and got in a truck with a bunch of drunk guys who subsequently gang raped her.
Another woman to whom I’m related was raped by her father every time he came home drunk.
But honestly, I think the issue is not drinking, per se. The issue is that people (myself included) will use any excuse to do what they’re pretty sure they shouldn’t be doing. You could just as easily write this article substituting the words anger, loneliness, curiosity, past abuse, or love for the word “alcohol” and get similar stories.
There was a generational difference in how comfortable people were and are talking about safer sex. Young adults today appear to be more willing to and do talk to their partners. The young adults within the age group of the National Campaign study (18-29) seemed much more open to talking to their partners about safer sex, and were tested regularly. The adults over 40, who responded to our survey all indicated little to no comprehensive sex ed in school. The young adults indicated a mix of good to bad sex ed in school. Since so many young adults did not have good comprehensive sex ed, but were still willing to talk to partners about safer sex, we wonder what’s happened to allow younger adults to be more comfortable talking to their partners than older adults? We wonder if media has a positive as well as a negative influence?
We asked about media influence, specifically whether Jersey Shore might have an effect on a respondent’s sex life, and among young adults especially, the opinion was resoundingly YES! What many young adults told us was that they saw younger friends or siblings being normalized to the Jersey Shore kind of sexualized behavior, so that the younger teens thought everyone was behaving that way, and that they would be “invulnerable to the darker or unpleasant side effects” of the mix of sex and alcohol. Those same young adults believed that among their peers, they viewed the characters in Jersey Shore as parodies, and found them funny or sad, and tried to not be like them. Most survey takers over the age of 40 either did not watch the show or had never heard of it.
What does this mean for us as educators?
Among nearly all of our respondents, comprehensive sex ed is definitely important. One respondent, a 21 year old girl, said: “I wish I knew it was ok to say no when i [sic] was a kid.” A 19 year old girl (with no good sex ed.) said: “I thought babies were born out of our butt and we only had the hole we peed from. I wish I knew everything like exactly was sex was. Or otherwise boyfriend number one wouldn’t be the first on my list. He told me we weren’t having sex. It was unprotected every time. Children are a blessing but at my age I’m lucky to be childless.”
We are left with a frustrating question of how we can best help. We found far too many incidents of unwanted sexual activity accompanying alcoholic consumption. We found young adults more willing to speak to their partners about safer sex, and more willing to go for regular testing for STIs. We know from recent studies that alcohol, especially binge drinking, can make people less likely to use condoms and more likely to engage in sex that would not have occurred without drinking. How do we bring this all together into programs that can help keep our teens and young adults safer?
Our Survey Questions:
- Tell me what you remember about sex ed at school. How old were you when you learned this (age or grade)?
- Are you comfortable talking to your partner about safer sex?
- What’s your definition of “hooking up”?
- If you are sexually active, have you ever been tested for an STI? Your friends?
- While drinking, are you (or your friends) more likely to engage in sexual activity?
- Can you tell me a story about alcohol and unwanted sexual activity? You or someone you know?
- Is there anything you wish you had known? Anything you would like to know now?
- Do you think that shows like Jersey Shore affect young adults and their sexual lives? How?
- How old are you? Are you attending college? What state? Do you live on campus or with a parent or guardian or on your own? Do you identify as a male or female?
- Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Author’s note: We will be using some of the responses to write future articles, based on questions raised by participants in our small study.