Is Sex Risky?

November 14, 2014 9:45 AM | Shannon Claxton

Having sexual intercourse without a condom, having more than one sexual partner, engaging in sex at an early age – all of these behaviors have been called “risky sexual behaviors” by researchers. But how do we actually know when a behavior is “risky?” Determining whether a behavior is risky is not as clear cut as simply categorizing behaviors into risky and not. Consider sex without a condom, often referred to as unprotected sex. This same “risky” behavior is considered normative when a couple wishes to conceive a child. In addition, in monogamous committed couples, where both partners are STI-free and want to avoid pregnancy, oral contraception is a more reliable contraceptive choice than condoms. Thus, our definition of risky behavior is somewhat subjective and may depend, at least to some degree, on the individuals’ intentions within their relationship or on the nature of the relationship itself.

The situation becomes even more complicated when you look at behaviors such as casual sex. Is casual sex inherently risky? How does alcohol use influence whether casual sex is considered risky? What about casual sex with a friend -- is it less risky than causal sex with a stranger? Is only unprotected casual sex risky, or are there aspects of casual sex that make it generally riskier than sex within a committed relationship?

Furthermore, what do we, as researchers, actually mean when we say a behavior is risky? Generally the label risky sexual behavior denotes that a sexual behavior could lead to negative physical outcomes such as sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancy. But should we consider potential negative mental health outcomes when we decide if a behavior is risky? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do think it is important for researchers to be clear what they mean by “risky sexual behavior” and to understand that this concept can be inherently difficulty to operationalize.

Additionally, moving away from this framework (i.e., labeling behavior as risky or not) may be an important step for research and allow for a deeper understanding of sexuality. For example, researchers have suggested shifting our conceptualization of adolescent sexual behaviors from a risk perspective to a focus on the potential negative and positive outcomes of the behaviors (e.g., Lefkowitz & Vasilenko, 2014; Vasilenko, Lefkowitz, & Welsh, 2014). Similarly, Harden (2014) recently proposed a framework for viewing adolescent sexuality as a positive and developmentally normative behavior, rather than focusing on sexual behavior in adolescence as fundamentally risky. Perhaps we should extend these ideas to sexuality during emerging adulthood and view emerging adults’ sexual behavior as having both positive and negative outcomes, rather than working to classify these behaviors as “risky.”

What do you think? Is the term risky sexual behavior too difficult to define, or is it useful for researchers focusing on sexuality during emerging adulthood? What other perspectives could be helpful for understanding sexual behavior during this time period?