By Lauren Baggett
Young black women living in the South have some of the highest rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in the U.S.
While there may be multiple factors that contribute to these rates, health promotion experts know that substance use—drinking, smoking, or using drugs—is strongly associated with risky sexual behaviors.
Yet, surprisingly little research has been done to understand how these two behaviors may influence each other among this high-risk group.
Now, a new study from the University of Georgia is using innovative modeling techniques to fill in the gaps and further inform the best timing for intervention.
“We wanted to see the extent to which substance use was associated with these different sexual risk behaviors at different ages,” said lead author Andrea Swartzendruber, an assistant professor in epidemiology at UGA’s College of Public Health.
“One of the main questions was, do behaviors differ by drug, but also by age.”
To answer that question, the researchers combined and analyzed data from three existing longitudinal studies of young black women in the South, which all asked similar questions about substance use and sexual risks behaviors.
The original studies collected data from women ages 14 to 25 and asked them questions about their drinking, cigarette use, and marijuana use, as well as how often the women were having sex, whether they used a condom, and whether they had multiple partners.
“There was basically no independent association with cigarette use at all,” said Swartzendruber, and the stronger associations between marijuana use and risky sexual behaviors peaked in the women’s late teens.
Particularly of note was the age when alcohol and risky sexual behavior had the strongest relationship, in the women’s early-and mid-20s.
Swartzendruber’s study doesn’t reveal exactly why that is, but her findings present opportunities for others to study this pattern and develop new interventions.
“This study offers a further appreciation of what a dynamic period adolescence and emerging adulthood is.” she said, “Being able to look at how risk behaviors and health behaviors change over time could have new insights for new interventions.”
The study, “Age-related associations between substance use and sexual risk behavior among high-risk young African American women in the South,” was published in Addictive Behaviors.
Co-authors are Jennifer L. Brown from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and Jessica M. Sales, Michael Windle, and Regine Haardoerfer from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.