More Sex Partners Linked to Higher Risk of Drug Addiction, Alcoholism

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Close up of couple's feet in bed

And the risk is especially great for women, according to new research.

Researchers explored the relationship between addictions and risky sexual behavior in a report published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. They followed virtually all of the 1037 children born between 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, and asked about their sexual partners as well as alcohol and other drug use. Women who had more than two to three sex partners when they were 18 years to 20 years old were nearly 10 times more likely than those who had none or one sexual partner to develop a drug problem, primarily involving alcohol or marijuana, at age 21.

MORE: Study Supports Sex Addiction as Diagnosis-Worthy Disorder

Having more than two to three partners from age 21 to age 25 increased addiction risk at age 26 by a factor of 7.  And at age 32, the risk was nearly 18 times greater for women who had more than two to three partners when they were aged 26 to 31 compared to those with one or no partners during that time.

The risks for men were also increased, but not by as much.  More than one sex partner from age 18 to age 20 nearly tripled the risk of a serious substance use disorder at 21— and having more than two to three partners quadrupled that risk for men of that age.

While the connection isn’t surprising, the implications could be profound. The CDC reports [PDF] that 24% of women aged 20 to 24 have had two or more partners in the past year; the number for men was 29%.  And women in particular may be likely to under-report this number.

The results were adjusted to take into account the effect that mental illnesses may have on risky sexual behavior, including having multiple partners; the researchers also tried controlling for socioeconomic status but found that the strong relationship between multiple sex partners and drug addiction and alcoholism stayed the same. The authors also limited the study to heterosexual sex, defined as intercourse. In contrast to previous studies, the research did not find that having multiple partners increased risk for later anxiety or depression.

The researchers, led by Sandhya Ramrakha of the University of Otago in New Zealand, speculate that there may be several explanations for the connection. Impulsivity can increase risky behavior of any type, and in some cases may be driving both the drug misuse as well as the sexual activity.  “[P]eople who are impulsive may be more likely to engage in both activities and consequently [be] more likely to become substance dependent,” the authors write.

In that case, says Howard Shaffer, director of the division on addiction at the Cambridge Health Alliance, which is part of Harvard Medical School, the study is “interesting, but not surprising.”  Shaffer, who was not associated with the research, says, “Having sexual partners is risky and using drugs is risky. It might be that people who take one kind of risk also are willing to take the other. That the effect is stronger for women than men tends to support my interpretation because multiple sex partners is more taboo for women than men,” he says. “What drives both kinds of risk taking is the more interesting question.”

It’s also possible, according to the authors of the paper, that “occasions of substance use are opportunities for sexual behavior because of its disinhibitory effects. Young people are likely to meet new sexual partners in situations where alcohol is served.”  And many people drink for precisely that reason.

MORE: Can Addictive Behaviors Be Predicted in Preschool?

But Ramrakha and her colleagues also suggest a final explanation that they find more “intriguing” than the others. Having many short-term relationships may itself be psychologically damaging. “[This] may be due to the impersonal nature of such relationships,” they write,  “Or it might be that multiple failed relationships create anxiety about initiating new relationships. Self ‘medication’ with substances may be one way of dealing with this interpersonal anxiety.”  Women, who are culturally expected to prefer monogamy, may be at higher risk than men if they do not do so.

Any of the potential explanations raises important concerns about the common factors that might be driving sexual and addictive behaviors, and could open up new ways to identifying and protecting those who might be most vulnerable.

99 comments
EricSlyter
EricSlyter

Fascinating details from the study, but hardly surprising at all.  Dopamine is dopamine, yo.

InterwebHobo
InterwebHobo

@psychomia Just bad at maths. Pretty common. Or they think the reader is. Equally common.

AJRementer
AJRementer

WOW, thanks for the news flash ... lol ... I wish some of the so-called experts in these fields would buy a clue and get out from behind their desks and degrees and take an fresh look at the addiction idea. Here's an idea ... maybe, JUST MAYBE the same person who abuses drugs or alcohol participates in other unhealthy behaviors (like open and free sex) because the disease/disorder isn't defined by heroin/cocaine/sex/gambling/cutting/alcoholism etc ... it is something completely different where the drug or the behavior is only the symptom. The disease/disorder starts in early childhood and progresses slowly over a matter of years. Each behavior exhibited becomes a desired behavior to achieve a desired result. With success (child achieving own personal goals HEALTHY or not) of each behavior comes repetition. Whatever behavior works best for the individual, that is the behavior the individual will exhibit on a more and more regular basis until eventually .... by teen or adulthood, it becomes a noticeable problem. Addiction doesn't start because some one snorted heroin or drank a few too many beers ... it starts WAY before the chemical. Every addict ... EVERY ONE states they have problems with who they are. This is not a coincidence. The drug or behavior is freely participated in as an escape from the person they struggle being ... the behavior eventually progresses into a clear problem. Why is it that the same treatment (for people willing to undergo treatment) works? WHY ... because it's root is the same. And by willing I don't mean court or job or family mandated ... I mean freely chooses to seek treatment on their own. I am so sick and tired of this abuse of this topic for profit sake. People are dying on a regular basis and people care more about making money than helping others. And the handful that do care are struggling sorting through all the nonsense that has been put out for years. Studies that have a pointed objective so that another pharmaceutical company can offer another billion dollar profit med to save the day. They should trash all the research and start over with a fresh set of eyes.

DufferinRrider
DufferinRrider

@drmanejwala @maiasz Wow! Way to fear monger and sex shame all at once.

mikesuqui
mikesuqui

@greggysaliba @philippinestar @time is that really true? Bakit ikaw greggy?

thabzeera
thabzeera

@TherealLungsta the other way around chief....Higher levels of alcohol abuse leads to more sex partners... #experience

PaulSacco1
PaulSacco1

@maiasz Do you think this is a spurious finding due to a shared cause?

annasarnek
annasarnek

I think there's a culture bias...“@TIME: Having more sex partners linked to higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse | http://t.co/AaZhLYemOu

whatzso
whatzso

@TIME std, divorce, lousy portfolio too.

dayunirma
dayunirma

Yang jelas jadi susah bagi waktu sih *kaya pengalaman aja* @bitchinomics

GeniusPhx
GeniusPhx

@TIME and what would be the problem with that??

RayHowe1
RayHowe1

@TIME it's called "having a good time"!

wilfennell
wilfennell

@TIME No, it's the other way around.

TimHatchAgain
TimHatchAgain

@TIME love it when Time Magazine finds out Christian principles work. One man + One woman = Gods design.

BryanKuffel
BryanKuffel

@TIME the reverse equals the same along with depression.

fuertecorazon
fuertecorazon

@TIME Not having more sex partners linked 2 excessive masturbation and hand calluses

melissa_costa
melissa_costa

@andreaespindola Pensei que fosse o contrário.

bdbdb
bdbdb

@ichadlowe @time post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Helran
Helran

@cetypeestfou pareil si on écoute du metal,conclusion faut pas être métalleux et avoir plusieurs partenaire xD

psychomia
psychomia

@InterwebHobo very bad at math... and aside from Ramrakha, also wrong in their conclusions. @drmanejwala #polyamory #sexuality

RecoveryInst
RecoveryInst

@tulekedoki Thanks for the RT! Glad to be connected on the #RecoveryFriendlyWeb

zuzuhaha
zuzuhaha

@DufferinRrider @drmanejwala @maiasz barf!! I'm sure those of us with 100 sex partners in that time period are good though, right?

maiasz
maiasz

@PaulSacco1 yes, impulsiveness prob accounts for a lot of it. also child sexual abuse increases risk for both. culture matters 2.

bitchinomics
bitchinomics

@dayunirma situ emang pengalaman banget hihihihihi

apindols
apindols

@melissa_costa Muito conservadorismo, né?

LostWandering
LostWandering

@churchbicycle agreed. Journalists and research (especially involving stats) is scary thing.

LemosJustin
LemosJustin

@M1Eliza @lilmegz11 no wonder why I'm so normal!!!!

lilmegz11
lilmegz11

@M1Eliza @TIME @LemosJustin makes total sense now

DufferinRrider
DufferinRrider

@zuzuhaha @drmanejwala @maiasz I know i'm better for it!

PaulSacco1
PaulSacco1

@maiasz Amazing value of longitudinal development studies like Dunedin. Heard Dr. Moffitt speak years ago, brilliant.

melissa_costa
melissa_costa

@andreaespindola Nem fale. E a reportagem já começa falando que o risco é maior para mulheres. Vou ler o texto todo pra ver qualé. :)

M1Eliza
M1Eliza

@LemosJustin @lilmegz11 awe you aren't getting any loving?! Lol

Helran
Helran

@cetypeestfou pas de soucis ;)

LemosJustin
LemosJustin

@M1Eliza @lilmegz11 no I am just don't have many partners!!!! Hahahaha

M1Eliza
M1Eliza

@LemosJustin @lilmegz11 you're an ass. I'm posting your inappropriate snowman on Instagram