Personality Traits and Coping Styles as Mediators in Risky Sexual Behavior: A Comparison of Male and Female Undergraduate Students

Article excerpt

The aim of this study was to examine the extent to which differences in risky sexual behavior (RSB) between males and females is mediated by their personality traits and coping styles. Participants were 180 first-year undergraduate students who were evaluated with the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire (TPQ; Cloninger, 1987); the Multidimensional Coping Inventory (COPE; Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989); and a Risky Sexual Behavior Questionnaire (RSBQ). Findings showed that while the majority of the males had engaged in RSB at least once during the previous year (80%), the majority of the females had not engaged in such behavior (62%). In addition, the males scored significantly higher than did the females on the novelty-seeking personality dimension (i.e., the tendency to respond with intense excitement to novel stimuli), as well as on the problem-focused and the avoidance coping styles. Path analysis revealed two mediators in the relationship between RSB and gender: novelty seeking and the avoidance coping style.

Despite intensive prevention efforts that have led to increased public awareness, Risky Sexual Behavior (RSB), manifested mainly in practicing unprotected sex, is still a major problem and a matter for societal concern. Considering that RSB significantly increases the risk for a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, the identification of factors enhancing and motivating such behavior is vital in order to improve prevention programs.

There is empirical evidence suggesting that gender is a key factor in the understanding of RSB. However, the findings are inconclusive as to the nature of the relationship between RSB and gender. Some studies have demonstrated that engagement in RSB is more common among males than among females and that females tend to be more selective and to exercise more caution in their sexual behavior (Hawkins, Gray, & Hawkins, 1995; Poulson, Eppler, Satterwhite, Wuensch, & Bass, 1998). Other studies, however, have indicated the opposite trend, namely that the rate of females' engagement in RSB is higher than that of males (Scandell, Klinkenberg, Hawkes, & Spriggs, 2003). Furthermore, the reason for the gender diversity in RSB has not yet been fully elucidated.

The focus of the present study was on the association between gender and RSB. More specifically, the study examined the role of two personality features - personality traits and coping style - both of which have previously been connected to RSB (e.g., Bryan & Stallings, 2002) and to gender (e.g., Wills, Vaccaro, & McNamara, 1994) as mediators in the relationship between RSB and gender.

For that purpose, two theoretical frameworks have been used: Cloninger's tridimensional personality theory (1987) and Carver's coping theory (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). Both of these models have been linked directly to various risky and abnormal behaviors, such as substance abuse and other addiction problems (Belding, Iguchi, Lamb, & Lakin, 1996; Kim & Grant, 2001), suicide tendencies and attempts (Gil, 2003), and other psychiatric disorders (Cloninger, 1986; Herran & Vazquez, 1998).

Cloninger's theory (1987) is derived from the unified biosocial model of personality and is based on the hypothesis that neurochemical transmitters determine stimulus-response characteristics. Three sets of transmitters and their behavioral manifestations are proposed: 1) Novelty Seeking (Dopamine) is described as a tendency to respond with intense excitement to novel stimuli or to seek potential relief from punishment. 2) Harm Avoidance (Serotonin) is defined as a tendency to respond intensely (i.e., fearfully, tensely, and with inhibitions) to previously established signals of aversive stimuli and to learn passively to avoid punishment, novelty, and frustrating nonreward. 3) Reward Dependence (Norepinephrine) is characterized as a tendency to respond intensely (i. …