We don’t always play it safe when it comes to sex. In fact, unprotected sex between partners who have just met or who haven’t shared their sexual histories is pretty common, despite the well-known risks of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy.
Undoubtedly, many factors play a role in these risky sexual decisions, including everything from drug and alcohol use to thrill-seeking personalities. However, you don’t have to be high or be a sensation-seeker to wind up pursuing risky sex.
A new set of studies just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior finds that simply being in a state of sexual arousal can be enough to put you in a risk-taking state of mind. Being horny doesn’t just make us more susceptible to risky sex, though—it also makes us more inclined to live on the edge in non-sexual ways, such as by making risky gambling decisions.
A group of Canadian sex researchers found support for these ideas by conducting two studies in which they manipulated heterosexual college students’ feelings of sexual arousal by either showing them an adult video or not. (I know — some participants get to have all of the fun).
Both studies included just over 100 participants each, half of whom watched a series of clips from an adult flick entitled Under the Covers. This film “depicted graphic but non-violent and non-demeaning sexual acts,” including both oral and vaginal sex. The remaining participants watched clips from popular movies and TV shows for the same amount of time, which involved men and women interacting in a non-sexual way.
The X-rated clips worked as intended. Participants who viewed them felt more sexually aroused afterward compared to those who watched neutral videos. However, male participants found the sex videos more arousing than female participants.
Following the arousal manipulation, participants in the first study were presented with a series of hypothetical romantic and sexual scenarios, as well as questions about what they would do if they were in those scenarios.
For example: in the middle of having sex with someone you just met, you notice that the condom broke. How likely would you be to keep going without getting a new condom?
Sexually aroused participants expressed more willingness to engage in this and other risky sexual behaviors than did participants in the neutral condition. This was true for both men and women; however, men expressed stronger intentions to engage in unsafe sex compared to women, regardless of whether they were aroused or not.
In the second study, participants played a computerized version of blackjack in lieu of reading the risky sex scenarios.
Participants played 10 rounds of the game, with each person playing the same set of hands. The only decision they had to make was whether to “hit” or “stay” each time. Of interest to the researchers were the decisions participants made when they had ambiguous hands, meaning that their cards totaled 15, 16 or 17.
Participants could not see the computer’s cards and had to make decisions based only on their own hands. The researchers argue that hitting on an ambiguous hand is a sign of risk-taking because there’s a strong chance that a hit would cause you to bust (i.e., go over 21) and lose the game.
Sexually aroused participants (both male and female) made more risky decisions during the game. However, whereas men expressed more intentions to have unsafe sex than women in the first study, men and women did not differ in how often they made risky moves in blackjack.
So what accounts for this link between arousal and risky behavior? The authors of this research argue that when we’re sexually aroused, we experience “sexual myopia,” meaning that our attention becomes so focused on gratifying our sexual needs that it prevents us from thinking clearly about other concerns (e.g., protecting our health). Consequently, it predisposes us to making riskier decisions.
A few limitations of this research are worth noting, including that all participants were college students. In addition, sexual risk-taking was measured hypothetically, and we all know that what we say we’re going to do isn’t necessarily what we actually do.
That said, the implications of this research are clear and very important: our ability to assess risks (sexually and otherwise) seems to change when we’re horny, which means that being sexually aroused increases the odds of making all kinds of potentially dangerous decisions.
The take-home message is that you probably shouldn’t wait until the heat of the moment to start discussing safer-sex practices; it increases the odds of making a choice that you’ll later regret.
And if you’re feeling hot to trot, you might want to think twice before stepping onto a casino floor. Otherwise, you may end up burning through your bankroll prematurely.