It is not secret that the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is high. Consider the following: “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2013) reported that there are 110 million STI cases with 20 million new infections annually…Persons aged 15–24 years account for half of all new infections (CDC, 2013)” (taken from Horan, 2016).
Naturally, then, condoms are encouraged as a way to reduce the risk for STIs. But, just how often do people use condoms? Various statistics exist that could address this question. For the sake of simplicity, I review some responses to these questions from my own recent research. Before reviewing these findings, note that the data comes from three studies and numerous other studies should be consulted before drawing sweeping conclusions. Still, I invite you to consider the following:
1. In my 2018 study, we asked participants: “How often do you use condoms during sexual activity?” Participants were invited to respond on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). Participants were 195 individuals who were, on average, 19.73 years old. Their average response to this question was 3.56 (SD = 1.40), indicating that condoms are sometimes used (Horan, Morgan, & Burke, 2018). Note that participants reported, on average, 4.69 sexual partners in their lifetime (SD = 5.92)
2. In my 2016 study, I asked people to rate how often they used condoms based on various types of behaviors. Participants included 183 people, who were on average 21.93 years old. Participants were invited to respond on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). When asked about condom use during vaginal intercourse, the average response was 3.06, suggesting they are used sometimes. Moreover, when asked about condom use during anal intercourse, the average response was 2.26, suggesting they are used rarely. Finally, when asked about condom use during oral genital activity, the average response was 1.25, suggesting they are seldom used. Naturally, these are average responses of participants, and variance among scores indicates variance in sexual safety behaviors. Participants in this study reported an average of 7.86 sexual partners (SD = 8.45).
Why might people not use condoms? Though a variety of reasons exist, the 2016 study provides some insight as to why condoms were not used. In addition to asking participants how often they use condoms, I also gauged their sexual safety knowledge.
When asked about condom use during vaginal intercourse, 98.9% of participants believed this constituted a safer sex behavior. Similarly, when asked about condom use during anal intercourse, 96.7% of participants agreed this was a safer sex behavior. However, when asked about condom use during oral genital activity, only 80.2% of participants believed this was a safer sex behavior. In reality, all of these behaviors are safer sex practices.
Related, in 2017, our study found that one reason why people did not discuss condoms was due to the misconception of risk (Horan & Cafferty, 2017). That is, participants did not discuss condoms because they believed the nature of the sexual activity did not warrant condom use. Yet, descriptions associated with these explanations highlighted the need for a condom (e.g. “because we never wear condoms when we have sex. I use birth control. He also pulls out” and “we had oral sex, so it wasn’t necessary”).
Consequently, the collective pattern of findings among these studies (and others), suggests that much more education about sexual risk and safety is necessary among young adults. Moreover, communication training is equally encouraged so that we can prepare sexually active young adults to communicate about safety when necessary
About the author: Dr. Sean M. Horan is a Communication professor. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealDrSean. His expertise is communication across relationships. His work/commentary has appeared on CNN, ABC, Fox, The Wall Street Journal, and more.