SF State News {University Communications}

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Gay couples study yields insights for HIV prevention

July 16, 2010 -- After surveying hundreds of gay couples in the San Francisco Bay Area, Professor of Sexuality Studies Colleen Hoff has published new findings on gay couples' relationship dynamics, including insights for HIV prevention among gay men in relationships. The study was published in the July issue of the journal AIDS Care.

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The study examines how "sexual agreements" affect HIV risk and couples' relationship satisfaction and quality. Widespread among gay couples, sexual agreements are the rules that couples make about whether sex with outside partners is allowed. These sexual contracts can include conditions limiting when, where, how often and with whom outside sex is permitted and whether safe sex is practiced.

Hoff found that gay couples make sexual agreements primarily because they want to strengthen their relationship, for example by building trust and honesty, rather than for protection against HIV.

"We found that gay couples are interested in building healthy, satisfying and loving relationships," Hoff said. "These desires, when nurtured, can lead to strong relationships. Yet the reality is that a broken sexual agreement, or one that isn't clear to either partner, can make both partners vulnerable to HIV."

Hoff and colleagues at SF State's Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality surveyed 566 gay male couples in the Bay Area and found that 99 percent had sexual agreements. Specifically, 45 percent had monogamous agreements, 47 percent had open agreements and 8 percent of couples had discrepant agreements where partners reported a different understanding of whether they have an open or monogamous agreement.

"Discrepant couples were particularly concerning in terms of HIV risk," Hoff said. "When there isn't consensus on what the agreement is, one partner could be involved in risky behavior outside of the relationship and the other partner may be unaware of the resulting risk of unprotected sex within the relationship."

The study suggests that knowing what motivates gay couples to make sexual agreements could help HIV prevention programs tailor their efforts to be relevant to the whole relationship. "HIV prevention needs to take a more holistic approach that goes beyond messages about safe sex," Hoff said. "Helping gay couples learn how to negotiate robust sexual agreements and how to disclose and deal with a break in an agreement could be an effective approach to HIV prevention."

Participants in the study responded to a series of statements assessing their satisfaction with their relationship and various relationship characteristics, such as trust and intimacy. The study found no significant difference in relationship satisfaction between men in open or discrepant relationships and those in monogamous relationships.

For relationship characteristics, participants' responses varied significantly depending on the type of sexual agreement they had (open, discrepant or monogamous). Men in monogamous relationships reported greater levels of intimacy with their partner, more trust, commitment and attachment toward their partner and greater equality in the relationship.

Previous story on Hoff's study on the health of gay parents: www.sfsu.edu/~news/2009/fall/1.html

-- Elaine Bible


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