AIDS study: Religion a predictor of risky sex

A York University study of risky sexual behaviour and other AIDS-related topics shows that when it comes to predicting who will engage in unprotected sex, religion is more important than ethnicity.

Trevor Hart, a clinical psychologist and professor in York University’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, and a member of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution, surveyed 500 undergraduate students at York. Hart and his research team found that among sexually active students, Catholics, other Christians, and Jews were more likely than non-religious students to have engaged in unprotected sex within the past six months. They were, however, not more likely to be sexually active.

Findings of the study are being presented this week at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto.

The results are interesting, Hart says, not because they tell us about the motivation involved in risking unprotected sex – they do not. However, the findings should be of interest to religious leaders – whatever the faith’s teachings about sex – when they are trying to deliver messages that will protect their flocks.

“Religion’s a hot topic, but if there’s an elephant in the room, we’d better address it. We have religious diversity – not just ethnic diversity – and we have to pay attention to it unless we want to pretend everybody in Toronto is not religious,” says Hart. “The good thing about these findings is if people are members of a religious community, religious leaders can guide their members to reduce their HIV risk. It is logistically more difficult to reach non-religious people with HIV-prevention messages.”

Hart’s survey also examined how immigration status could be related to HIV knowledge and risky behaviour. He and his research assistants divided the students into three categories based on their immigration status: non-immigrants to Canada, immigrants who had been in Canada for more than eight years, and immigrants who had been in Canada for fewer than eight years. The most recent immigrants had less knowledge about AIDS and HIV transmission than Canadian students who were not immigrants, and they were also more concerned about how their friends would react to them being tested. However, the recent immigrants were also less sexually active than students born in Canada.

“Forty per cent of our sample were immigrants, so it made sense to take a look at whether there are different HIV-prevention needs among immigrants than among non-immigrants,” said Hart. “Rather than delivering the standard message about using a condom every time they have sex, it may be more appropriate to tailor messages for immigrants that educate them about HIV but do not make the assumption that they are as sexually active as people born in Canada.”

Only about 10 per cent of the sample had been tested for HIV, and many said they would be anxious about being judged by other people for even getting tested. In fact, people with high anxiety about being judged are only half as likely as others to say they could get tested in the future, says Hart. This is a problem because the Public Health Agency of Canada has reported that about 30 per cent of the people in Canada who have HIV do not know it, says Hart.