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Safe Sex or Russian Roulette?

Insistence on condom use actually strengthens relationships.

WebMD Feature

The discrepancy between what college students know about safe sex and what they do is staggering. A significant number of young people have been diagnosed with AIDS. Of the 688,200 AIDS cases reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through December 1998, more than 121,000 were ages 13 to 29.

Yet most young people don't take the one step that could prevent them from becoming infected with the deadly HIV virus -- that is, use a condom.

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Why not? One frequent reason is the belief that one's partner would be insulted or think less of you if you insisted on using a condom, according to a study published in 1997.

Survey Suggests Otherwise

But a recent study by communications experts at the University of Georgia suggests this may not be so. John E. Hocking, PhD, and his colleagues in the department of speech communication found that a person who insists on a condom is most often perceived as responsible and caring. And the relationship can benefit, they found, if a partner insists on condom use. Both male and female subjects tended to view a relationship as closer, more intimate, and more likely to last when their partners insisted on using a condom. The study was published in the Journal of Adolescence.

Hocking and his colleagues designed a role-playing scenario in which each participant imagined he or she was going to have sex with a new partner for the first time. The students visualized how they met, what they were wearing on the night that sex was likely to occur, even whether they both enjoyed the movie on their fantasy date or not.

The students did not know that condom use was the focus of the study until they were randomly assigned to a group that either insisted on condom use or didn't. (In order to remove all possibility that a condom was used for birth control, researchers told the subjects that the woman was taking an oral contraceptive.)

After the role playing, the 87 men and 103 women, ranging in age from 18 to 30, were surveyed to learn their feelings about their character in the scenario, their partner, the relationship, and how they thought the partner felt about them.

On the average, the students whose partners insisted on using a condom said they felt safer and had less regret about the encounter than those who didn't. (Interestingly, the sex of the person who suggested using a condom wasn't found significant.)

How to Bring it Up

Hocking says it's not surprising to him that both men and women believed that the relationship was more intimate when a condom was used. "All things being equal, do you want to be with a responsible person or an irresponsible one?" asks Hocking. "Once we saw it, it makes perfect sense. The belief that insisting on safe sex damages the relationship is a myth."

Still, role-playing is a long way from real life. Broaching the subject of using a condom can be awkward.

When it comes to what to say and how to say it, there's help. The website of Planned Parenthood, for instance, www.plannedparenthood.org, posts a "Sample script for safer sex." And who says you must buy a plain-brown wrapper condom? Today's choices include opaque, studded, nipple-ended, and others, and in different sizes and thicknesses, which could make introducing the topic more fun.

It's natural to be tongue-tied and embarrassed when asking a new partner to use a condom, but focusing on long-term health -- and responsible sex -- can ease the discomfort.

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