When Drinking's Involved, White Teens Are More Likely Than Blacks to Engage In Risky Sexual Behavior, UB Study Says

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: August 8, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Adolescents who drink or use drugs are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and, when drinking is involved, whites teens are much more apt to engage in risky behavior than blacks, a study by University at Buffalo psychologists has found.

The study, published recently in Health Psychology, found that among many teens, the "safe sex" message is falling on deaf ears.

Fewer than half of adolescents surveyed by a research team led by M. Lynne Cooper, UB associate professor of psychology, used condoms on two separate occasions of intercourse.

The researchers also found that nearly one-third had a casual sexual partner, and one-third failed to discuss any risk-related topics with their partner before intercourse. The overwhelming majority of adolescents engaged in at least one of these risky behaviors on both occasions of intercourse.

The researchers surveyed 1,259 sexually active adolescents ages 13-19 about their first-ever intercourse and first intercourse with their most recent partner to examine the link between drinking and a range of risk behaviors. Although two previous studies had examined the connection between alcohol use and risk-taking on a single occasion of intercourse among adolescents, they were limited in that both used small samples of white youth and did not control for such variables as demographics.

They also examined contraception use in general -- not condom use specifically -- findings that may tell more about an individual's usual contraceptive practices, rather than whether alcohol disrupts use of methods used at the moment, such as a diaphragm or condom. Moreover, neither looked at behaviors other than condom use that place individuals at risk for HIV infection.

The UB study found that overall, rates of substance use were low for both occasions of intercourse. About 10 percent of respondents reported drinking at the first intercourse, with 17 percent reporting alcohol use at the first intercourse with their most recent partner. Drug use was even less prevalent, with 3 percent and 5 percent respectively, reporting drug use on the first and subsequent occasions.

Yet whites and older adolescents were significantly more likely to drink than blacks and younger adolescents, with drinking being seven times more common among whites than blacks at first intercourse and more than three times as common on the subsequent occasion.

But despite the relatively low levels of substance use, adolescents took substantial risks on both occasions of intercourse. Fewer than half of respondents used condoms on both occasions. Thirty-three percent (first-ever intercourse) and 37 percent (first intercourse with most recent partner) of respondents failed to discuss any of the three topics related to disease transmission before intercourse, including past sexual and drug-use history and the likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Only 18 percent and 25 percent discussed all three.

Further, 25 percent and 30 percent had sex with someone they were dating casually or with a casual friend or acquaintance, and an additional 5 percent and 6 percent reported having sex with a "stranger" -- defined as "someone you had just met."

The overwhelming majority of the adolescents engaged in at least one of these risky behaviors on both occasions of intercourse -- 72 percent and 77 percent, respectively -- although relatively small percentages -- 13 percent and 8 percent, respectively -- reported engaging in all three risky behaviors.

Whites reported riskier behavior than blacks. Specifically, whites were less likely to report discussing risk-related topics before intercourse than blacks.

The study found that use of alcohol or drugs proximal to intercourse was associated with a moderate increase in risk-taking, even when accounting for demographic and other factors. For example, on the first occasion of intercourse, adolescents were 2 1/2 times more likely to use condoms if they did not drink or take drugs, compared to those who used both substances.

Moreover, within-persons analyses indicated that adolescents engaged in riskier behavior in sexual situations when they used substances than when they did not.

The findings suggest that the effects of substance use on risk behavior are more pronounced for white adolescents than black, the researchers wrote. "These findings, in conjunction with the higher base rates of drug and alcohol use found among white adolescents, suggest that white youth, relative to their black counterparts, are at greater risk of experiencing negative outcomes associated with substance abuse proximal to intercourse, and that intervention efforts could be targeted accordingly."

In general, Cooper added, "drinking and drug use are associated with increased risk, and the factors are as strong predictors of risky behavior as gender, race and age. You can't change a person's gender, race or age, but you can change their behavior and alert them to the kinds of situations containing the possibility of sexual encounters."

Also participating in the study were former UB doctoral students Robert S. Pierce of the Research Institute on Addictions and Rebecca Farmer Huselid, Ph.D., of Hunter College.