Tell Them insists that lawmakers hear your voice.
We work to improve reproductive health policy in South Carolina.

Substance use and sexual activity in underage population: Is there a connection?

Posted by Ryan Morgan on January 03, 2014 at 12:28 PM
Tell Them's January social media campaign asks organizations, programs, and businesses, “What are you doing in 2014 to encourage healthier youth?” The following is a guest post by Annie, Social Media Coordinator for St. Jude Retreats - a non 12 step alternative to conventional alcohol and drug rehab. SaintJudeRetreatsThe subject of sexual activity and its correlation to substance use (including drugs and alcohol) has been extensively researched and more often than not, the presence of a correlation between the two has been found. The nature of this connection has been an object of dispute for years, similar to the “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma - do people use substances in order to have (more) sex or is sex a trigger to use substances? These are important questions to ask especially when we are addressing the population of sexually active underage individuals. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveillance summaries of youth risk behavior from 2011, “among the 33.7% of currently sexually active students nationwide, 22.1% had drunk alcohol or used drugs before last sexual intercourse (Table 73)” (CDC, 2011). Considering that the same study showed that although there has been a fluctuation in the percentage of underage individuals who used alcohol before sexual intercourse between 1991-2001 (increase) and 2001-2011 (decrease), the numbers between 2009 and 2011 did not change significantly. So, what is really going on? Are teenagers having sex because they are using substances or are they using substances in order to have more sex? Substance use is commonly used as an excuse for engaging in certain behaviors; however, the motivations to use substances or to engage in sexual activity vary beyond these simplistic causal explanations, especially with respect to young people. Young people engage in sexual behavior for a number of reasons: peer pressure, curiosity, and also due to an increase in their libido which is a natural part of the maturation process. Too many times when substance use is involved, teens who have been caught engaging in sexual behavior or those that are facing the consequences of that behavior will point to substance use as the cause. In their mind this seems to lessen their responsibility, which is potentially problematic. Our current cultural belief here in the U.S. is that using alcohol lowers inhibitions and can lead to more promiscuous behavior, but this is not the case in other cultures and countries. Furthermore multiple studies here in the U.S. have shown a placebo effect with respect to using alcohol. Basically what this means is that people typically behave exactly as they expect they will be behave when drinking. Unfortunately our children are being taught that using substances can lead to risky sexual behaviors, so it makes sense they would act accordingly. Some teens choose to use substances to alleviate the anxiety of an impending sexual encounter, while others may use substances because they think it will enhance the sexual experience. Some underage individuals make the correlation between substance use and sexual activity based on personal experience or observed behavior of their friends. Whatever the reason, the connection between substance use and sexual behavior is dangerous. People behave exactly as they expect they will behave. A young man who believes he will become more aggressive sexually after drinking can become a predator to a young woman who believes her inhibitions are lessened. If an individual wants to believe that substance use is a predisposition to have (more/better/different) sex, he or she will make that correlation and act upon it, and vice versa. However, educating young people regarding the truth about substance use and also sexual activity is the key to minimizing risky behavior. Young people are going to experiment with substances and they are going to engage in sexual behavior as it is a natural part of the maturation process. Since the beginning of time prohibition of behavior has been proven to be ineffective when it comes to controlling the behavior of others, especially young people. Simply allowing the new generation to learn from their mistakes is also not a good option. Young people are intelligent, curious in the best sense possible and capable of making smart decisions. Therefore, providing them with intelligent, well-researched, and interesting information as well as teaching them to make better choices for reasons beyond “because we said so” is much more effective than scare tactics and misinformation designed to control behavior. Modeling behavior we want our children to emulate is one of the most effective teachers because they listen and see things even when we think they don’t.

How to connect