UF Researcher: College Students Aware Of Risks Of Sexual Activity

Published: December 21 1999

Category:Education, Health, Research

GAINESVILLE — Contrary to popular belief, college students who don’t protect themselves against pregnancy do so not from ignorance but because of laziness, embarrassment or lack of communication with their partners, a University of Florida study shows.

“They’re not naive,” said Cynthia Findley-Klein, a visiting assistant professor in the University of Florida’s department of psychology. “They know what their risk is. There are other factors that go on in the decision to use contraceptives, and these are the factors that sex ed should perhaps be dealing with. It impacts how you might do persuasive communications.”

The finding that young adults are fully aware of their risk of pregnancy underscores the need for significant changes in the way teens are taught about sex, Findley-Klein said. Sex education should focus less on overemphasizing risk and more on encouraging teens to communicate with their partners before having sex and to develop a contraceptive game plan, Findley-Klein said.

“The big thing is being prepared and not being too caught up in the moment to protect yourself,” Findley-Klein said. “This is the kind of thing that should be stressed in sex education.”

For her UF dissertation in August, Findley-Klein surveyed 111 sexually active female students, most of whom were 18- and 19-year-old freshmen and sophomores, about the contraceptives they used and what they believed their risk of pregnancy to be. For comparison, Findley-Klein used the percentage of sexually active 18- to 19-year-olds in the United States who experience an unplanned pregnancy, which is 13 percent.

According to her survey results, the average perceived risk of pregnancy was 15 percent, not significantly different from the 13 percent U.S. average Findley-Klein used, indicating the students’ idea of their risk is fairly accurate. However, survey respondents also indicated that the risk of their peers getting pregnant was more than twice as high as their own risk, a concept known as optimistic bias or illusion of invulnerability.

“This is similar to thinking that your chances of getting in a car accident or another bad situation are less than those of somebody else,” Findley-Klein said. “Researchers have typically thought that this optimistic bias undermines precautionary behavior, but that wasn’t true in this case.”

One reason for the optimistic bias evident in the study may be that respondents reported engaging in some type of precautionary contraceptive behavior 83 percent of the time. According to national statistics from the nonprofit Alan Guttmacher Institute, only 65 percent of sexually active teen-agers 15 to 19 use some form of contraception, so the respondents in Findley-Klein’s survey may very well have had a lower risk of pregnancy than their peers.

Although teens — particularly older teens — do tend to understand the risk of pregnancy, they fail to protect themselves adequately, said Bill Albert, the director of communication for the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonprofit organization whose board includes public figures such as actress Whoopi Goldberg and Katherine Graham, Washington Post chairman of the executive board and former publisher. Even using contraceptives 83 percent of the time still leaves a wide window of opportunity for accidental pregnancy, Findley-Klein said.

“Generally speaking, teen-agers aren’t very good contraceptive users,” Albert said. “Teens aren’t consistent with their contraceptive use, and they’re less likely to use contraceptives if they have sex repeatedly.”

But this trend could change if sex education hits home for teens more effectively, Findley-Klein said.

“There’s something special that goes on in the decision to use contraceptives,” she said. “Teens need to learn how to overcome their embarrassment or the lack of convenience that would prevent them from using contraceptives.”


Kristin Harmel
Cynthia Findley-Klein

Category:Education, Health, Research