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Health Psychol. 2011 Sep;30(5):597-605. doi: 10.1037/a0023858.

Relationship characteristics and sexual risk-taking in young men who have sex with men.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois, USA.



Young men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly young men of color, are experiencing the largest increase in HIV incidence of any risk group in the United States Epidemiological research suggests that the majority of transmissions among MSM are occurring in the context of primary partnerships, but little research has been done on the processes within these dyads that increase HIV risk behaviors. The aim of this study was to use longitudinal partnership-level data to explore the effects of partner and relationship characteristics on the frequency of unprotected sex within young MSM relationships.


One hundred twenty-two young MSM (age 16-20 at baseline) were assessed at three time-points six months apart, with 91% retention at the 12-month follow-up wave. Over 80% were racial/ethnic minorities. At each wave, participants reported on characteristics of the relationships and partners for up to three sexual partners. Hierarchical linear modeling was used for analyses.


The largest effect was for considering the relationship to be serious, which was associated with nearly an eightfold increase in the rate of unprotected sex. Other factors that increased risk behaviors included older partners, drug use prior to sex, physical violence, forced sex, and partnership lasting more than six months. Partners met online were not associated with significantly more sexual risk.


These data provide insight into the relationship processes that should be addressed in prevention programs targeted at young MSM. Relationships may serve as a promising unit for HIV prevention interventions, although more formative research will be required to address potential logistical obstacles to implementing such interventions. The partner-by-partner analytic approach (i.e., evaluating situational variables associated with several partners for a given participant) holds promise for future HIV behavioral research.

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