Washington Young adults who drink heavily are more likely than non-heavy drinkers to have multiple sex partners, studies have shown. Does the number of partners increase with the intensity of drinking? Does having a diagnosed conduct disorder affect that number?
A team of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studied 601 unmarried adults, ages 18 to 25, from six U.S. universities to find out. Their results are published in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Participants were grouped into three categories, reflecting their alcohol consumption: About 45 percent were identified as alcohol-dependent, 31 percent as problem drinkers and 22 percent as nondependent. Participants also were grouped according to conduct disorders: Those who had no conduct problems, those who had some and those who met the medical definition of having a disorder, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Interviewers then questioned them about their sexual behavior.
The mean age for first-time intercourse was almost 16, and the number of reported sexual partners ranged from one to 200, with a mean of nine. Those who were judged not to have a drinking problem reported seven partners, on average, while problem drinkers reported 11 and the alcohol-dependent 12. Those reporting a diagnosed conduct disorder had an even higher number of partners - on average, 16. Those with both alcohol dependence and conduct disorder had the highest average number of partners.
Other factors associated with a larger number of partners included not having a high school diploma, being male, being African American and, especially, having first intercourse at age 14 or younger.
According to Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, the study's lead author, the findings suggest that when a young adult seeks help for a particular problem - such as alcohol abuse, impulsive conduct or a sexually transmitted infection - clinicians and other authorities such as university faculty members should inquire about and, if necessary, address other concerns as well.
"We need to have comprehensive interventions, not treat problems in silos," she said.
All of those studied were related to at least one individual who was being treated for alcoholism; thus, the results may be generalizable only to the one-quarter of Americans with alcohol-dependent relatives, Cavazos-Rehg said.