Sexual Risk Behavior of Drug-Addicted Adolescents

March 20, 2019

The recent opioid crisis and substance abuse epidemic has been an increasing matter of concern in the US over the past few years. The dangers of drug addiction and substance abuse are not only restricted to probable fatal overdoses but also the potential influence on a person’s character and personality.

Evidence has revealed that substance abuse may lead to numerous high-risk destructive behaviors. Although substance abuse can occur at any age, young adults and teenagers are more prone to the risks. Various research has been conducted on the substance disorders in patients over the past few years. Findings reveal that the majority of them started consuming opioids during their teenage years.

Further studies have revealed even more alarming facts confirming an association between drug-addiction and risky sexual behavior in adolescents. Risky sexual behaviors include sexual activities, which may compromise the health of an individual by exposing her/him to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). These risky sexual activities often include unprotected sex and intercourse with multiple partners.

It has been observed that adolescents are more prone to developing risky health behaviors that may influence their current and future well-being. According to the reports, nearly two-thirds of the patients acquiring sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are young people under the age of 25. These reports confirm that young people and adolescents are at high risk of HIV/AIDS and pregnancy.

Key behavioral risk factors in adolescents leading to STD are:

  • Not using barrier contraceptives
  • Initiating unprotected sexual intercourse
  • Having sex with a partner who has previously had multiple sexual partners
  • Having multiple, sequential or concurrent sexual partners

Nearly half of the sexually-active teens do not use condoms correctly and consistently. Furthermore, adolescents tend to have brief relationships with multiple sexual partners.

Healthcare professionals and lawmakers throughout the US have come together to address the issues related to drug addiction and sexual risk behavior. The aim is to increase protective factors and curb the number of fatal overdoses to ultimately reduce the risks due to substance abuse.

How Do Addictive Drugs Influence Brain Function?

Studies reveal that addictive drugs interfere with the functioning of the brain. These drugs short-circuit the brain communication thereby influencing how information is received, sent, and processed. Some addictive drugs may influence the reward system of the brain by producing an abnormal quantity of dopamine. The latter is a neurotransmitter that directs motivation, movement, emotions, and the way we perceive pleasure.

Normal levels of dopamine help in regulating impulses. For instance, our body releases dopamine when we eat chocolate. It tells our brain that we really enjoy the taste of the chocolate and sends a signal to continue the pleasurable action. On the contrary, an intake of addictive drugs induces the surge of dopamine thereby leading to a powerful craving for more such drugs.

Research in the area reveals that some drugs can initiate the release of high amounts of dopamine, 2 to 10 times higher than in the cases of natural rewards that occur while eating or having sex. Some drugs can initiate the process almost immediately as soon as they are injected or smoked. The effects of such drugs also persist for longer than natural rewards. As a result, the brain’s pleasure circuit dominates the effects produced by any other naturally rewarding behaviors. This short-circuiting of the brain produces hard-to-resist cravings in the drug user convincing them to take more drugs.

The addictive drugs not only overpower the brain’s pleasure circuit but also negatively affect impulse control and decision-making parts of the brain. This further leads to impaired judgment compelling the addicts to take risky actions which they would have ignored had their brains not been compromised by addictive drugs and alcohol overuse.

How Addictive Drugs Induce Risky Sexual behavior?

Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified a direct association between the intake of addictive drugs and risky sexual behaviors among teens. The high-risk behavior includes initiating sex, not using a condom, having multiple sex partners, and pregnancy before the age of 15.

Extensive research in the area emphasizes the association of early pregnancy with adverse outcomes for both child and mother. Adolescent mothers are reported to have poor mental and physical health, acquire low educational achievements and are often unemployed. Furthermore, children of adolescent mothers are likely to have poor health, emotional issues, and cognitive disorders.

Further research reveals that the likelihood of having sex with numerous partners increases with an increased frequency of addictive drugs intake. In addition, more sexual risk behaviors are observed in teens who consume alcohol, and illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs like opioids, sedatives, and stimulants. The impact of early consumption of illegal drugs seemed to be pervasive. In other words, adolescents with a higher level of drugs reported to have multiple sexual partners, higher frequency of unprotected sex, and have experienced early pregnancy.

According to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted in 2017, 41% high school students were reported to have intercourse at least once and 30% high school students reported to be currently sexually active. Furthermore, 21% of the currently sexually active students admitted to using drugs or alcohol before their last instance of sexual intercourse.

A strong association between addictive drugs and risky sexual behavior has been observed during adolescence with primary differences by social class or gender.  In addition, some evidence emphasizes that the relationship between addictive drugs and risky sexual behavior may vary by culture and socio-demographic groups.

The association between intake of addictive drugs and risky sexual behavior may reflect inherent situational factors like social modeling, cognitive impairment, and disinhibiting effects. It has been observed that addictive substances like alcohol and drugs induce a pharmacological disinhibiting response on the basis of a psychological mechanism. On the other hand, this association also reflects individual personality characteristics, which include unconventionality, sensation-seeking tendency, or normal developmental exploration.

It has been observed that addictive drugs may interfere with rational decision-making and cognitive functioning. Illicit drugs leave toxic psychopharmacological effects on normal brain metabolism and functioning. Multiple pieces of evidence prove the association of abusive drugs with psychiatric disorders, which are in turn, related to high-risk sexual behaviors.

Further studies in the area reveal how substance intake before intercourse can eventually impair judgment. For example, many times teenagers and young adults consume drugs and alcohol to permit themselves for engaging in risk-taking.

More theories on sensation-seeking suggest that some people have an inherent biological predisposition towards seeking sensation. This makes them prone than others to engage in numerous risky behaviors. The risk-taking behavior may be further influenced by many other social, environmental, perceived environmental, biological, personality or behavioral factors.

Adolescents who experienced a higher level of violence were more likely to engage in drug addiction and risky sexual behavior. Reports reveal that adolescents exposed to trivial or no violence had the lowest reported incidence of drug addiction or risky sexual behavior. These findings emphasize the importance of protecting youth from violence to guard them against the adverse effects of using illicit drugs and subsequent risky sexual behaviors.

In addition, risky sexual behavior is also associated with later illegal drug use possibly induced by peer group pressure. Adolescents involved in high-risk sexual behavior at an early stage are more likely to engage with other adolescents involved in illegal drug use.

Adolescents using illegal drugs find it difficult to assume age-appropriate behaviors. The difficulties are further exacerbated by the detrimental consequences of risky sexual behaviors involving unprotected sex or early pregnancy.

Uncovering Connections Between Risky Sexual Behavior and Substance Abuse

Research findings have identified certain common underlying factors between risky sexual behavior and substance abuse, which may predispose a teenager to such alarming behavior. It is extremely important to identify any precursors so as to undermine the risk.

Most effective primary prevention approaches address these common risk factors. The prevention programs addressing substance abuse and risky sexual behavior must focus on the individual, their families, peers, communities, and schools.

Children who receive a supportive environment at school and proper engagement from their parents at home are less likely to consume drugs or alcohol and engage in any sexual behavior putting them at the risk for STDs, HIV, or pregnancy.

Commonly observed risk factors for substance abuse and risky sexual behavior include:

  • A family history with similar behavior, family conflict, or family management issues
  • Extreme economic deprivation leading to poverty
  • Favorable parental attitudes or parental involvement encouraging the problem behavior
  • Lack of school connectedness
  • Lack of positive engagement from the parents
  • Association with peers using the substance
  • Alienation and rebelliousness
  • Lower academic performance
  • Absentee parents

How Substance Abuse Leads to Crime?

Studies conducted to identify a correlation between alcohol/drug intake and high-risk sexual behavior have also found a connection between drug addiction and crime. Findings are based on:

  • Prison Population – 80% of inmates participated in alcohol or drug abuse and almost half of all inmates have been clinically addicted.
  • Violent Crime – According to figures, almost 40% of all violent crimes reported to have involvement of alcohol or drugs.
  • Arrest Figures – Almost 60% of people arrested for a crime showed a positive test for illegal narcotics. In addition, 37% of them were drinking at the time they were arrested.

Nearly 20% of the federal and state inmates admitted that their criminal behavior was directly connected to their desire of getting more money for buying drugs. Eventually, people struggling with a dependency on drugs or alcohol are compelled to do surprisingly illegal crimes to get their hands on the addictive substances, no matter what.

Preventive Measures to Curb Substance Abuse

Various primary prevention activities have been started by CDC to target substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors. Education and counseling programs have been started to warn people regarding the potential dangers of substance abuse. These programs emphasize the effects of drugs and alcohol on the user’s judgment. Furthermore, they underline the connection between drug addiction and risky sexual behavior in social context.

These programs have been helping young people in recognizing social cues involved in drug addiction. Further counseling helps adolescents in avoiding social situations that may cause substance abuse or risky sexual behavior. All these primary prevention activities must include the following pre-requisites in order to be effective:

  • Parent engagement
  • Parenting skills training
  • Family support programs
  • Peer-led alcohol and drug resistance programs
  • School-based programs to promote emotional and social competence

For this, CDC has recommended the following prevention programs to ensure the reduction of incidents involving risky sexual behavior in teenagers:

  • Parenting Programs – These involve parenting skill training sessions to increase parental involvement with teenagers.
  • Family Support Programs – These include counseling sessions for families struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, or any other issues causing a conflict.
  • School Programs – They target schools to implement constructive programs that can help build up emotional support and social interactions among high-school students.
  • Resistance Programs – These include alcohol and drug prevention programs supervised by peers.

While these prevention programs serve as a milestone in curbing substance abuse and risky sexual behavior, CDC is engaging targeted efforts to develop better strategies to combat such behaviors among teens. Some of these efforts include:

  • Conducting a 3-year demonstration project named Teens Linked to Care (TLC). This project assesses the ability to integrate sexual risk prevention and substance use prevention program activities in the school-based settings of rural communities. The program is further supported by the CDC and the Hilton Foundation.
  • Conducting detailed analysis of data received from the School Health Profiles, YRBS, and the School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS).
  • Conducting detailed analysis of state as well as local policies concerning substance use prevention in teenagers.
  • Improving YRBS questions related to prescription opioids or other addictive substances.
  • Conducting a detailed research on the topic of substance abuse in teens to identify how it is associated with numerous other risks and high-risk behaviors.

Further Help for Substance Abuse

People seeking help for substance abuse must understand that detox is the primary step towards an effective recovery plan. Detox not only helps in getting rid of the poisonous drugs and alcohol but also assists in controlling cravings. You should consult nearby addiction relief centers to get immediate addiction treatment services.

Education and counseling certainly help when sexual risk-taking is caused by substance-induced disinhibition. It effectively warns young people about the underlying potential dangers of consuming alcohol and drugs on the user’s judgment.

Education and counseling help young people in recognizing and avoiding social cues that may lead to drug addiction and risky sexual behavior. Education and counseling sessions help by accentuating the outcome of unsafe intercourse with multiple sexual partners and its association with high-risk conditions like STD and HIV infection.

In cases where sexual risk-taking behavior is induced by individual factors or personality traits, specific prevention programs are designed to target adolescent risk-takers. These programs help in channeling the potentially destructive risk-taking impulse towards less-damaging activities. These prevention programs are specifically tailored to target at-risk populations on the basis of diversified strategies.

Constructive initiatives by CDC are sure to eliminate the concerns of drug addiction and sexual risk behavior in adolescents and young people over time.