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How feeling good about your lover might be bad for your sexual health

“If you feel generally good about other people’s intentions, you’ll be less likely to be concerned about unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases”

“We want secure attachments in relationships, so it’s interesting to see that feelings of security seem to promote unsafe sex,” John Sakaluk says.

A new study from U of T Mississauga psychology researcher John Sakaluk has found that the better you are bonded to your partner, the less likely you are to want to practice safe sex with them.

The three-part study surveyed heterosexual subjects online and in a lab setting, and asked participants to recall times when they held secure, anxious or avoidant feelings about another person. Once the mental mood was set, Sakaluk and co-researcher Omri Gillath asked participants a variety of questions to gauge feelings about condom use during sex.

Sakaluk says respondents who reported feeling more secure with their partner also reported that they were less likely to use a condom.

“Sex doesn’t happen in an emotional vacuum,” Sakaluk adds. “It’s happening between two people. Even in a one-night stand, people are pursuing some kind of psychological and physical connection. There are a lot of feelings involved.”

“We used experimental methods to manipulate people’s feelings about how secure they felt in their relationships,” he says. The team then measured how those feelings of attachment or closeness might affect attitudes towards condom use.

Sakaluk says experimentally setting the mental mood helps to provide evidence that feelings of security actually cause changes in condom use attitudes. “Much of the data we have on psychology and safe sex is assessed through self-report surveys,” he says, adding that simply correlating psychological variables like security and attitudes towards condom use can provide inconclusive results about cause and effect.

The first two parts of Sakaluk’s research found that when participants were encouraged to feel secure about a partner, they reported feeling that the other person was generally well-intentioned and trustworthy. These assumptions can have repercussions on attitudes towards sexual safety, he says.

“We see that they perceive sexual partners as less of a threat to their health, which results in more negative attitudes toward condom use,” Sakaluk says. “If you feel generally good about other people’s intentions, you’ll be less likely to be concerned about unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. It’s irrational, but you feel like you can trust the other person and bad things aren’t going to happen.”

In the third part of Sakaluk’s research, his team observed how many condoms participants would take after being encouraged to feel secure.

The condoms participants were given were also altered for the experiment. Some participants received condoms that read “Protect YOUR Sexual Health.” Others received condoms that read “Protect YOUR PARTNER’S Sexual Health.” The team found that when people were encouraged to feel secure, they took fewer condoms when the importance of their own sexual health was stressed, compared to when the importance of their partner’s sexual health was stressed.

“Security is generally a good thing – we want secure attachments in relationships, so it’s interesting to see that feelings of security seem to promote unsafe sex,” he says.

Canadian statistics show reported rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and infectious syphilis have been rising since the late 1990s, and this trend is expected to continue in Canada and other similarly developed countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

“My research shows that we have to consider the emotional context and how people might feel about those relationships as a part of the decision-making process to use a condom," he says. "When it comes to gut feelings about sexual attitudes, it has real medical health consequences.”

The Causal Effects of Relational Security and Insecurity on Condom Use Attitudes and Acquisition Behavior” was published in the February 2016 edition of the Archives of Sexual Behavior.