Sexual Sensation Seeking and Risky Sexual Behavior among South African University Students

Article excerpt

This study investigated the association between the personality dispositions of sexual sensation seeking (SSS) and nonsexual experience seeking (Non-SES), and risky sexual behaviors among 308 sexually active South African university students. The students provided retrospective reports of their sexual behavior and completed measures of SSS and Non-SES. Findings, based on a sample of sexually active students, suggest an association between SSS and a number of risky sexual behaviors. Intervention strategies are discussed, incorporating a particular reference to cultural context.

Southern Africa is experiencing an upsurge of HIV infections. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (AIDS Analysis Africa, 2000/2001: 16) Sub-Saharan Africa has an estimated 25.3 million HIV/AIDS infected individuals, after an increase of about 3.8 million new infections in the year 2000. In South Africa the prevalence rates among the 15-to 49-year-old age group have increased from 12.9% to 19.9% in just two years. Statistics for university students are limited. However, the available information on morbidity rates among this group indicates that they are at risk. Estimates are that in 2000 about 0.7% undergraduate and 0.5% postgraduate students in South African universities had AIDS. Twenty-- two percent of undergraduates and 11% of postgraduates were infected with HIV in the same year. The figures are expected to increase sharply in 5 to 10 years (Chetty, 2000: 9). Students possess sufficient knowledge about HIV/AIDS (Ellis & Sund, 1999; Williams, et al., 1992), yet this group continues to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Studies on risky sexual behavior have been influenced by cognitively based theories such as the health belief model, reasoned action and self-efficacy theories (Bandawe & Foster, 1996; Buunk, Bakker, Siero, van den Eijnden, & Yzer, 1998). The theories focus on the effects of situational factors, belief and cognitive aspects of risky behavior on individual choice. They have succeeded in predicting risky sexual behavior. However, they are behavior specific and do not explain the underlying global determinants of risk-taking behavior (Carvajal, Garner & Evans, 1998). Global determinants can probably account for why some individuals with high HIV/AIDS knowledge continue to engage in risky sexual behavior. To correct for the limitation of the individual-choice hypothesis, a contextual analysis has been proposed (Bajos & Marquet, 2000; MacPhail, 1998), emphasizing structural constraints to rational choice. According to this approach, risky sexual behavior must not be attributed to intrapsychic or personality factors. In spite of observations to the contrary (Sheeran, Abraham, & Orbell, 1999: 120), personality dispositions have been found to be related to risk-taking behavior (Moore & Rosenthal, 1993), and warrant further investigation in the area of HIV/AIDS (Kalichman et al., 1994).

Yesmont's (1992) study found that safer sex assertiveness and aggressiveness varied positively with safe-sex behaviors such as being cautious to avoid risky sexual encounters, conducting sexual-background checks on potential sex partners, and condom use. Bandawe and Foster (1996) explained low condom use among students as a consequence of the use of defence mechanisms of denial and intellectualization. Carvajal et al. (1998) found an association between dispositional optimism and HIV-related self-protective measures. The common thread between the studies is that the disposition concerned could be linked to not one but several risky sexual behaviors. Sexual sensation seeking (SSS) holds a similar economic value to assertiveness and dispositional optimism.

SSS is defined as the inclination to engage in adventurous and optimally stimulating sexual behavior. In its original conception, sensation seeking comprised four dimensions, namely, experience seeking, boredom susceptibility, thrill and adventure seeking, and disinhibition (Zuckerman, 1971; Zuckerman, Eysenck, & Eysenck, 1978; Zuckerman, Kolin, Price, & Zoob, 1964). …