When researchers looked at who used condoms
regularly versus inconsistently, they found couple-related factors
like age difference and how steady or casual the relationship was
explained more than half of the variation in condom use. Traits of
the individuals accounted for 15 percent or less of the variation.
The results suggest a need for a shift in the way individuals are
counseled about condom use, according to Dr. Luu Ireland, from the
department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of
California, Los Angeles.
"As physicians we focus more on the individual . . . (but based on
the study findings) we probably should address more the type of
relationship our patients are going to be involved in," Ireland, who
was not involved in the study, said in an email to Reuters Health.
Previous research has focused on either the individual factors
associated with condom use, such as gender, age and ethnicity, or on
partnership factors, such as the duration and exclusivity of the
In the current study, Amy Matser, of the Public Health Service of
Amsterdam, and her team looked at both sets of factors to determine
which were most important in predicting who would use condoms
They surveyed a total 2,144 men and women who visited a sexually
transmitted infections (STI) clinic in Amsterdam from May to August
2010. Participants were asked about their sexual behaviors with up
to four of their most recent sexual partners — 6,401 partnerships in
all — during the previous year.
Half of the study participants were under age 25 and just over half
were women, the researchers note in the journal Sexually Transmitted
They found condoms were used regularly in just 33.5 percent of the
4,014 casual partnerships and 14 percent of the steady partnerships,
according to Matser.
Specific characteristics of these couples were most commonly
associated with irregular condom use, for example, it became more
likely with the increasing duration of relationships, particularly
in steady relationships.
Inconsistent condom use was also more frequent when both partners in
a couple were the same ethnicity and in couples with increasing
number of sex acts, participation in anal sex and sex-related drug
use. This was true of both steady and casual sex relationships.
"We found that when partners are more familiar with each other and
when they are more alike, inconsistent condom use becomes more
prevalent," Matser told Reuters Health in an email. "We should
rethink of our current prevention strategies to promote condom use
to see whether these methods are sufficiently capable of increasing
awareness of the risk of acquiring STIs from partners who are more
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Characteristics of individuals were also linked with condom use,
for instance, less-educated men and women were more likely to use
condoms inconsistently than those with a university degree. This was
particularly true in steady relationships versus casual couplings.
Dutch women and men of non-Dutch ethnicity in steady
relationships were also more likely to report inconsistent condom
use than their counterparts.
Ireland points out that the authors did not strictly define
"inconsistent" condom use. A couple that used condoms 95 percent of
the time and a couple that used condoms 5 percent of the time would
both be lumped in the same inconsistent use category. Still, she
added, "inconsistent condom use and nonuse is really high,"
according to this study's findings.
The authors acknowledge that since the participants were recruited
from visitors to a Dutch STI clinic, an inherently high-risk
population, the study results may not be applicable to everyone.
They should hold true in Western countries like the U.S. or the
UK, according to Matser, "because norms and values in these
countries do not differ much from the Netherlands."
Ireland said, anecdotally, the patterns seen in the study population
may not be that much different among her own patients in the U.S.,
noting that people in longer relationships or those who are familiar
with their sexual partners may be less likely to use condoms.
"In my experience, people tend to be motivated to use condoms when
they feel they are at risk," she said, adding "the only way to be
safe is to practice 100 percent condom use."
"If they're not using condoms with you, there's a chance they're not
using it with other sexual partners," Ireland said.
Sexually Transmitted Infections, online Feb. 18, 2014.
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