BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a recent study conducted by scientists at
the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions
involving 154 heavy-drinking college students whose sexual behavior
put them at risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted
diseases (STDs), there were two expected findings and one
As expected, an alcohol-focused, motivational counseling
intervention reduced both the frequency of students' drinking and
the amount they consumed. A similar intervention that focused only
on HIV risk reduced the frequency of unprotected sex, but did not
reduce the number of sexual partners.
The surprise? The drinking-reduction intervention did not reduce
unprotected sex or the number of partners.
The results were published online in September in the American
Psychological Association's Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
"Drinking and risky sex are common among college students," said
Kurt H. Dermen, lead investigator on the study and senior research
scientist at the RIA. "Although most who drink are light or
moderate drinkers, many college students drink heavily on a regular
basis. Many also have sex without using condoms and have multiple
sex partners, both behaviors that increase risk for STDs."
Dermen is a clinical psychologist and expert on motivational
interventions in addiction treatment. His collaborator on the
investigation, Sherilyn N. Thomas, maintains a private psychology
practice and serves as director of the Psychological Services
Center in UB's Department of Psychology.
Alcohol use has often been blamed as one cause of college
students' risky sex, Dermen said. For this reason, many researchers
and policy advocates have suggested that intervening to reduce
heavy drinking might be an effective way to reduce the frequency of
unprotected sex in this group. However, that turned out not to be
the case in this study.
The finding that an alcohol-focused intervention had no effect
on risky sexual behavior suggests that alcohol use among
heavy-drinking college students may have little to do with their
decisions regarding whether or not to use condoms or to have sex
with multiple partners, Dermen added.
Students selected for the study (91 women and 63 men) ranged in
age from 18 to 30 and were all unmarried. All described themselves
as heterosexual, except for two women who reported being bisexual.
The participants were in their first through sixth years of
college. Eighty-six percent were white, five percent were Hispanic,
and the rest were black, Asian or Native American.
All of the students reported at least one heavy drinking episode
in the two weeks prior to starting the study. In the three months
prior to the study, 65 percent also used marijuana, 21 percent used
hallucinogens, nine percent used cocaine and seven percent used
opiates. More than half (55 percent) of the students reported
having had at least five sexual partners in their lifetime, and
eight percent reported having had an STD. On average, the students
reported having sex 38 times during the previous 90 days, with
one-third of those intercourse events occurring after alcohol
The study adds to existing evidence supporting the use of
drinking-reduction interventions based on the motivational
interviewing approach to counseling. It also provides encouraging
evidence that a brief HIV-focused intervention employing this
approach may be useful for reducing the frequency of unprotected
sex among college students.
Additional work is needed to investigate whether these
interventions would have similar effects with a greater mix of
racial, ethnic and sexual-minority college students.
The Research Institute on Addictions has been a national leader
in the study of addictions since 1970 and a research center of the
University at Buffalo since 1999.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a
member of the Association of American Universities.