This week we published a new study in the journal Health Psychology that found that young gay and bisexual men in serious relationships have nearly eight times the rate of unprotected sex as compared to when they are in casual relationships.  The findings provide a new direction for prevention efforts in this population who account for nearly 70 percent of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in adolescents and young adults in the United States and who also have the highest increase in new infections. 

Being in a serious relationship provides a number of mental and physical health benefits, but it also increases behaviors that put you at risk for HIV transmission. Men who believe a relationship is serious mistakenly think they don't need to protect themselves.  About 80 percent of gay young men who are HIV positive don't know it, because they aren't being tested frequently enough.  It isn't enough to ask your partner his HIV status.  Instead, both people in a serious, monogamous couple relationship should go and receive at least two HIV tests before deciding to stop using condoms.  You need to get two tests at least 3 months apart because there is a window period where it is possible to be infected with HIV, but it does not show up on the most common HIV tests.  Your HIV test counselor can help you explore your options if you are thinking about making a change in your safe sex plans.  You can find locations near you where you can get a free or low cost HIV test on the IMPACT program webpage.

Our new research shows HIV prevention programs should be directed toward serious relationships rather than the current focus on individuals who hook up in casual relationships. We need to do greater outreach to young male couples. This is one population that has really been left behind. We should be focusing on serious relationships.  The study findings dovetail with recent Centers for Disease Control data showing the majority of HIV transmissions occur in serious relationships. Being in a committed relationship more strongly influenced whether a gay man had unprotected sex than using drugs with a partner, the latter nearly doubling the risk. A new shift to focus research on committed gay couples is partly a result of the burgeoning same-sex marriage movement, Mustanski said.

Our study looked at the behaviors of a diverse population of 122 young men (16 to 20 years old when the study began) over two years. The young men are a subset of participants in our ongoing longitudinal study on the sexual and mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.  The study, named Project Q2, is the longest running longitudinal study of LGBT youth ever conducted.

Mustanski, B., Newcomb, M. E., & Clerkin, E. M. (2011). Relationship characteristics and sexual risk-taking in young men who have sex with men. Health Psychology doi: 2011-10482-001

Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program . You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook.

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