How Multiple Sex Partners Shows Teen Risky Behavior

Teenage girl with pregnancy test
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It probably comes as no surprise that teenagers and young adults who have multiple sexual partners are significantly more likely to develop substance abuse disorders than those who have not had sex with more than one person.

What may surprise you is that this is more true for females than it is for males.

But, that is exactly what research tells us. One of the largest studies of multiple sexual partners and substance abuse was conducted at the University of Maryland by Donna E. Howard and associates. The study focused on 3,288 teenage girls who were sexually active.

Among these sexually experienced adolescents, 24% reported no sexual partners in the past three months, about 63 percent had one and 13 percent had two or more recent sexual partners.

Substance Abuse and Other Risky Behaviors

The study found that girls who have sex with more than one partner in a short period of time are likely to engage in other risk behaviors such as fighting, binge drinking, smoking cigarettes, using cocaine, or sniffing glue.

Having sexual intercourse with multiple partners increases the risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and resulting damage to reproductive health, the Maryland study found.

Other studies have shown that girls are starting to have sex at younger ages, and an earlier start to sexual intercourse often leads to multiple sexual partner behavior.

Besides fighting, drinking and substance abuse, girls with multiple sexual partners were also likely to have had unprotected sex the last time they had sexual intercourse, another dangerous behavior that compounds the risks of sex with many partners.

Does Drinking Prompt Multiple Partners?

Interestingly, Howard's study found that as the teenage girls grew older they began to limit their sexual partners. Ninth graders reported more recent multiple sexual partner behavior, but the number of sexual partners declined for girls in the 11th and 12th grades.

There is some disagreement among researchers about whether having multiple sexual partners is a factor in the later development of substance abuse disorders, or does the substance abuse increase the likelihood of having sex with multiple partners.

Likelihood of Risk-Taking

Some studies have shown a similar relationship in the reverse direction, that with frequent and heavy drinking, there is a greater likelihood of risk-taking, including having multiple sex partners.

One study of 533 ninth graders across a 13-year period found that alcohol use "was a leading indicator of changes in a number of sex partners throughout adolescence." But, the reverse pattern was not found—having multiple sexual partners was not linked to increased alcohol use.

No Link to Depression or Anxiety

However, a longitudinal New Zealand study examined the relationship between numbers of sex partners over three age periods (18–20, 21–25, and 26–32 years) and diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and substance dependence disorder at 21, 26, and 32 years.

The results showed that an increasing number of sex partners was associated with a "striking increase" in later substance dependence disorders, especially for women.

No consistent associations were found with later anxiety or depression at any age.

Why Is Sex Linked With Substance Abuse?

Researchers have speculated on the reason that having multiple sexual partners might be linked to developing later substance abuse problems. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Sexual risk-taking and substance abuse are common risk-taking behaviors in adolescence and young adulthood.
  • Occasions of substance abuse are opportunities for sexual behavior due to disinhibition and lowered perception of risk.
  • People are more likely to meet new sexual partners in situations in which alcohol is served and alcohol may facilitate multiple partnering.
  • Something about having multiple sex partners puts people at risk of substance abuse disorders.

Researchers speculate that it might be the impersonal nature of multiple partner relationships that prompts later substance abuse. Or, they say, perhaps having multiple failed relationships creates an attitude in which substance abuse is likely.

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