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Alcohol Use and Risky Sexual Behavior among College Students and Youth: Evaluating the Evidence

M. Lynne Cooper

Objective: To evaluate the empirical associations between alcohol use and risky sex at two levels of analysis. Global associations test whether individuals who engage in one behavior are more likely to engage in the other, whereas event-specific associations test whether the likelihood of engaging in one behavior on a given occasion varies as a function of engaging in the other on that same occasion. Method: Studies examining the association between drinking and risky sex in samples of college students and youth were reviewed. Those published in the past 10 years and using event-level methodology or random sampling were emphasized. Results: Findings were generally consistent across levels of analysis, but differed across types of risky behaviors. Drinking was strongly related to the decision to have sex and to indiscriminate forms of risky sex (e.g., having multiple or casual sex partners), but was inconsistently related to protective behaviors (e.g., condom use). Moreover, the links among alcohol use, the decision to have sex and indiscriminate behaviors were found in both between-persons and within-persons analyses, suggesting that these relationships cannot be adequately explained by stable individual differences between people who do and do not drink. Analysis of event characteristics showed that drinking was more strongly associated with decreased protective behaviors among younger individuals, on first intercourse experiences and for events that occurred on average longer ago. Conclusions: Future efforts aimed at reducing alcohol use in potentially sexual situations may decrease some forms of risky sex, but are less likely to affect protective behaviors directly. (J. Stud. Alcohol, Supplement No. 14: 101-117, 2002)