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The Naked Truth The Sexual Health Blog

Why Do Good People Take Sexual Risks?

June 5th, 2011 by The Sexual Health Team


There are many reasons for lapses in judgment

by Mitchell Tepper, PhD, MPH

When it comes to sexual decision-making, even the best of us don’t always make rational, responsible choices. Despite our knowledge about how HIV and STDs are spread, and statistical chances of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection, we sometimes act without thinking.

The stigma associated with STDs leads people to believe that only uninformed, unconcerned, or reckless fools get diseases. Good people like you and me would never…or would we?

Well, even good people take sexual risks. Researchers have explored the possible psychological, social and – more recently – physiological reasons underlying our lapses in judgment. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • We’re in love. Love can be intoxicating. Areas of the brain associated with dopamine cells and central to the brain’s system for reward and motivation lit up during imaging studies of volunteers who were shown pictures of their lovers. High levels of dopamine are associated with romantic or passionate love. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who conducted these studies, noted that several parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) responsible for emotional regulation and executive function that are highly wired in the dopamine pathways were also mobilized; while the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear, was temporarily shut down.
  • We want love. We believe having sex will win over a potential love interest. Romantic love, characterized by yearning for another, is a drive associated with motivational centers in the brain, according to Fisher, not an emotion. When we’re strongly attracted to another, we may risk sexual intercourse without discussing sexual history and without insisting on using a condom for the chance at winning love.
  • We’ve had one too many. It’s well-known that intoxication reduces our inhibitions and impairs our judgment. In other words, alcohol can make you feel like you’re in love, and more willing to take chances.
  • We’re turned on. Researchers at The Kinsey Institute studied cognitive processes associated with decision-making that occurs in “the heat of the moment.’’ Heat-of-the-moment decisions are influenced by a combination of situational, nonsexual and sexual variables…including how turned on we are. The researchers theorize that sexual arousal may increase our desire for what’s pleasurable and immediate (e.g., sex), and temporarily weaken our resolve to avoid potentially undesirable future consequences (e.g., unintentional pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, etc.)…bottom line, being turned on makes us more likely to take sexual risks, and less likely to distinguish between high- and low-risk sexual partners or situations.
  • We feel our partners are safe, so we’re not at risk. We don’t like to think that our choice of a sexual partner would have an STD. Through brain imaging, Kinsey researchers measured the brain activity of 12 women as they viewed photos of men’s faces. At the same time, the women were given information about each man’s potential risk as a sexual partner …including number of previous sexual partners and frequency of condom use. The women reported that they would be more likely to have sex with low-risk men.
  • We’re scared, insecure, or hurting. In these stressful states, the reptilian brain kicks in and sex is a temporary fix for anxiety. In “The Art of Loving,” author Eric Fromm defines anxiety as fear of impending isolation. So what’s the antidote for anxiety? Loving contact with another human being. According to sex researchers Barry Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple, love – in its most basic form – is the fulfillment of the sensory stimulation we desire; for some, that sensory experience can be satisfied by the most direct form of contact…sex.
  • We need affirmation. Research on the connection between risky sexual behaviors and self-worth is inconclusive. But in specific contexts, there’s a strong correlation between low self-esteem (e.g., not feeling lovable or attractive) and the likelihood of risky sexual behavior.
  • We have a history of abuse. People who have experienced unwanted sex and  (CSA) are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors…including multiple sexual partners and unprotected sex. People with a history of abuse are also known to be more prone to risk their health in other ways, like binge drinking.
  • We’re emotionally exhausted.Emotional fatigue about the HIV epidemic has often been cited as a reason for the barebacking phenomenon (unprotected anal intercourse) among men who have sex with men (MSM). While this syndrome hasn’t yet been widely studied, I suspect that many of us can identify with it…we live in a society in which we are constantly barraged and overwhelmed by the troubles and tragedies of the world, even as we try to manage our own interpersonal pressures at the same time. Sometimes, we throw caution to the wind just to shut out the voices for a while.

What are your reasons for taking sexual risks? Join the conversation. Self-awareness and knowledge about sexual risk factors are key to avoiding situations we end up regretting.

And remember: it’s always a good idea to get tested if you think you might have been exposed to STDs – whatever the reason. The sooner you know your status, the sooner you can get treated (if necessary) and avoid passing an infection to others.

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