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Abigail P. Bowen, Rachel L. Grover, Ph.D., Faith Shank, Jason M. Prenoveau, Ph.D., Matthew Kirkhart Ph.D.

Predictors of Risky Sexual Behavior in Emerging Adults

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One developmental task for the emerging adult is exploring sexual identity (Arnett, 2000). For some, sexual identity exploration moves beyond the norm and toward sexual risk taking. Risky sexual behaviors (RSB) often result in negative medical, psychological and/or emotional consequences (e.g., unprotected sex; CDC, 2014). The purpose of this study was to better understand what predisposes emerging adults to engage in RSB. The current study examined attachment style, sensation seeking, and sexual motives as predictors of RSB. Also, the study evaluated alcohol use as a potential mediator between the predictors and RSB.

College students (N = 392, M = 19.12 years, 23.1% male), completed online self-report measures as part of a larger study on relationships. The measures assessed participants’ RSBs (Sexual Risk Survey; Turchik & Garske, 2009), attachment style (Experiences in Close Relationships Inventory-Revised; Fraley, Waller & Brennan, 2000) sexual motives (Sexual Motives Scale; Cooper, Shapiro & Powers, 1998), sensation seeking (Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking; Arnett, 1994) and alcohol use (Quantity-Frequency Measures; Sobell, 1997).

Associations among the study variables and RSB were investigated using Pearson correlations. Consistent with hypotheses, five sexual motivation styles had a significant positive association with RSB, Intimacy (INT), r = .41, p < .001, r2 = .17; Enhancement (ENH), r = .51, p < .001, r2 = .26; Self-Affirmation (SELF), r = .38, p < .001, r2 = .14; Coping (COP), r = .33, p < .001, r2 = .11; Partner Approval (PART), r = .24, p < .001, r2 = .06. Surprisingly, sensation seeking had a significant negative association with RSB, r = -.20, p < .001, r2 = .04. Alcohol frequency and quantity had a significant positive association with RSB, Frequency, r = .40, p < .001, r2 = .16; Quantity, r = .33, p < .001, r2 = .11. No associations were found between RSB and attachment style.

To examine the hypotheses that drinking behavior is a partial mediator between the sexual motives and RSB, a series of mediation analyses were run using the bootstrapping approach and PROCESS macro (Hayes & Preacher, 2014). Results indicated that the following sexual motives (INT, ENH, SELF, COP, PART) were all significant predictors of alcohol frequency and alcohol frequency was a significant predictor of RSB, indicating preliminary requirements for mediation were met. For all sexual motives, alcohol frequency was a significant mediator of RSB.

Overall, results suggest that frequent drinking, sensation seeking, and sexual motives are associated with RSB in an emerging adulthood sample. Specifically, college students who reported higher levels of engagement in sexual behaviors to fulfill intimacy needs, bolster self-esteem, gain partner approval, or as a coping mechanism were all more likely to engage in RSB. In addition, the frequency of drinking behavior significantly mediated the relations between sexual motives and RSB. Therefore, the motivation for sexual activity predicted frequency of alcohol use, which then predicted engagement in RSB. Results could be used in the design of RSB intervention programs on college campuses.

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