Sexual Health Roundup: Sexting is Normal and Summer Is the Season to Think “Sex”

In this week's sexual health roundup: researchers at the University of Michigan looked at the sexting behavior and psychological health of over 3,000 college students and determined that sexting did not, in fact, lead to heartache; another study of college students found that mixing alcohol and caffeinated energy drinks may increase risky behaviors such as drunk sex and casual sex; and a survey of Google searches since 2006 confirms what birth records have suggested for years -- Americans do actually think about sex more in the summer. 

Latest Research on Sexting Says It’s… Normal

There has been a lot of focus on young people and sexting in the last few years which is understandable because it is a brand new sexual behavior and one that seems designed to get young people who are thought to have more tech-savvy than common sense in trouble (though Anthony Weiner and others may disagree with that assumption). The media certainly latched on to the idea that sexting had reached epidemic proportions among teens and continually suggests that it is a dangerous and even deviant behavior. 

The newest academic research on the subject tells us that it’s neither. 

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 3,447 young men and women ages 18 to 24 and found that over half (57 percent) were not sexters. Among those who were sexters; 28.2 percent were two-way sexters, 12.6 percent were receivers, and 2 percent were senders. The researchers found that sexually-active respondents were more likely to be two-way sexters than those who were not sexually active (suggesting that it is a behavior done as part of a relationship). Interestingly, males were more likely to be receivers than their female counterparts.  

Participants were also asked about their sexual behavior (how many sexual partners they’d had) and their psychological well-being. The researchers found that there was no difference between sexters and non-sexters. Specifically, among participants who were sexually active in the past 30 days, the study found no differences “across sexting groups in the number of sexual partners or the number of unprotected sex partners in the past 30 days.”  It also found no relationship between sexting and psychological well-being; sexters did not, in fact, report increased anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem as has been suggested in media stories.

The authors say that most studies on sexting have focused on who is doing it and not on whether sexting impacts their health. They believe the findings “should help reverse the negative perception the news media-gobbling public has of sexting as a deviant or even criminal behavior.” That said, they acknowledge that this study looks at participants who were considerably older than the pre-teens whose sexting behavior dominate the media discussions on this topic. One of the authors explained: “For younger age groups, legality is an issue. They are also in a very different place in their sexual development.”

For older groups it seems that sending pictures of your privates to a good friend doesn’t have much impact on your sexual health—you’re political career, though, may be another story. 

Caffeine and Alcohol Together May Lead to More Casual Sex and More Drunk Sex than Alcohol Alone

I have to admit that I’ve never had a Red Bull. And though I’m on my second cup of coffee this morning, Starbuck’s wasn’t around when I was in college and I hadn’t yet developed a reliance on this morning drink, so I can’t quite relate to the habits of today’s college students who frequently mix caffeinated energy drinks with alcohol. Though the pre-packaged version, Four Loko, was taken off the market, students on campuses across the country make their own by mixing Red Bull with vodka or Jagermeister.  According to new research, when it comes to clouding your judgement this is worse than the old version of a Jagerbomb which was just made with beer.

Kathleen Miller, a researcher at the University of Buffalo, surveyed 648 college students asking them how often they mixed alcohol and caffeine, whether their last sexual encounter had been with a casual partner, whether it was unprotected, and whether it had taken place while they were drunk or high. The study, which was published in the Journal of Caffeine Research, defined casual partner as someone they weren’t in love with, weren’t exclusive with, and/or didn’t know well. 

About a third of the sample had mixed alcohol and energy drinks and though they were no more likely than their peers to have had unprotected sex recently, they were more likely to say their last partner was casual and that they had been drunk or high the last time they had had sex. Miller concluded that for both men and women mixing drinks with caffeine appeared to have effects on sex that alcohol alone did not have even when she control for alcohol use general. 

Miller explains that this mixture can increase sexual behavior because “when you’re drinking lots of alcohol, your judgment is impaired, and if you’re having caffeine, you don’t realize how impaired you are.” In short, energy drinks keep you from feeling tired and let you drink more. There’s also some evidence that energy drinks increase your desire for alcohol. 

There are some limitations to the study, however, in that it analyzed behaviors over a period of time but did not look at event-level behavior (meaning it didn’t ask about what happened the last time students mixed vodka and red bull and had sex). I also take some issue with the suggestion that a “casual” partner as it is defined in this study is indicative of risky sex–many people have had sex with partners who they are not in love with or exclusive with and it does not qualify risky–especially given that the alcohol/energy drink combination did not seem to increase unprotected sex.

Nonetheless, I think we all would prefer that when sexually-active college students have sex—whether with a casual or an exclusive partner—they are both sober and protected. 

Summer Loving: Americans think about Sex More in the Summer

My grandfather was a psychiatrist who specialized in couples counseling and I remember him once telling me that he thought people were more likely to hook up in the summer because it was hot, they were wearing less clothing, and inhibitions were down. Okay, he didn’t actually use the phrase hook up but you get the point and apparently he had a point.  A new survey of key word searches on Google suggests that June and July are not just about swimming and barbecues but porn and prostitutes as well.

Researchers analyzed the keywords used in Google searches between January 2006 and March 2011. They looked at keywords related to finding a mate (such as “eHarmony” and “”), prostitution (such as “call girl” and “escort”) and pornography (such as “porn” and “boobs”). As a control measure, they also looked at the number of searches for neutral keywords, such as “dog” and “windshield.”

They found that there are two times of year that Americans become more interested in sex—the brightest summer days of June and July and the darkest winter days of December and January. Searches for prostitution-related keywords were 2.78 percent above average in January and July and mate-seeking searches were 5.67 percent above average during these months. Similarly, searches for pornography were 4.28 percent above average during December and June. (Data on searches about prostitution in March of 2008 were thrown out because they were 35 percent above average which researchers attributed to the Eliot Spitzer scandal.)

This research confirms other data from over the years that suggested Americans were having more sex in certain months based on STDs rates and birth records.  Still, none of the research has been able to tell us why this is the case. Some have suggested that yearly variations in sperm quality and hormonal fluctuations are responsible for these spikes in interest. Research into birth records has suggested a natural tendency to give birth in the late summer or early fall. The author of this study, which was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, points out that “…if that was the only reason, there’d be no reason to watch porn or find a prostitute.” He speculates that the increase in sexual activity is about being around people and points out that summer tends to have more social activities as does December which includes holiday gatherings and shopping crowds.    

I kind of like Papa’s explanation better—in the summertime we walk around half-naked already. Though I suppose that doesn’t explain December when we’re wearing parkas, if only he were still around to ask about that.