When you think of STD and HIV risk factors, you probably (hopefully!) think of unprotected sex, intravenous drug use, and men who have sex with men. Those are the big three that carry the highest risk, but they aren’t the only activities that increase your likelihood of contracting HIV/AIDS. It’s just as important, if not MORE important, to talk about the behaviors that can lead to a positive HIV diagnosis that aren’t so obvious.
While it may seem like preventing STDs comes down to common sense tactics— wear a condom, don’t share needles, get tested regularly— there are quite a few behaviors and activities that may seem unrelated to STDs (until you receive a positive diagnosis, that is). Obviously, alcohol and drugs lower your inhibitions and can lead to poor decision-making, but did you know that the age of your sexual partner can be an equally important influence on your risk of contracting HIV?
The following factors have been shown to significantly impact your chances of contracting STDs, including HIV/AIDS:
- Having a pre-existing STD
It’s a dangerous myth that having an STD protects you against getting another at the same time. This is false! In fact, having an STD like increases your risk of getting HIV, especially herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2) and/or syphilis- makes your risk of contracting HIV 2 to 5 times higher!
- Getting it on with older men (if you’re a man)
A recently published study has shown that HIV-positive men over the age of 50 who have sex with other men disclosed their status a lot less often than their younger HIV-positive peers. That age group was also associated with less negotiating with their partners to make sure they’re practicing safe sex. The reasons for this are unclear, but it suggests that old age doesn’t always bring wisdom.
- The number of bars/clubs in your zip code
For most young people, plenty of nightlife in the vicinity of their home is a good thing. It shouldn’t be, though, because a higher number of bars and clubs within a zip code directly affects the chances of catching HIV if you live in that zip code. Not only do more drinking holes equate to a higher prevalence of HIV, it’s a whopping 1.5 percent increase in HIV prevalence for every bar. In an area with a really dense population (which is another risk factor), this means a lot of people are having risky sex.
- Becoming a sex worker before your 20th birthday
Sex work is always a risk factor for STDs because multiple sex partners is part of the job, but women under the age of 20 are more susceptible to HIV in the line of duty than their over-20 counterparts. Younger sex workers may have a harder time insisting on condom use or protecting themselves from attack because they’re immature or inexperienced. In addition to lacking the skills to negotiate and control the situation when having sex for money, this increased risk could also possibly be due to larger areas of cervical ectopy in young women, which facilitates a higher rate of STD transmission.
- Your buddies
The link between the people you’re friends with and your chance of getting an STD is very meaningful. The people in your social circle and the behaviors they exhibit influence your decisions, whether consciously or subconsciously. It’s a fact that if you have friends who use condoms and practice safe sex, you are more likely to do the same. The old idiom “birds of a feather flock together” holds true yet again.
- Losing your V-card at a young age
This one is simply a matter of math. When you lose your virginity at a young age, you’re sexually active for a longer amount of time than if you’d waited. The longer you’re sexually active, the more likely you are to have multiple sexual partners. More sexual partners means more chances to catch and spread an STD. Being young also means being inexperienced and immature, which are not good attributes for sexually active people. If you haven’t even taken sex education by the time you lose your virginity, you may have incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of sexual health and, therefore, not know how to properly protect yourself.
- Being a transgender female
Transgender women face a lot of difficulties in life. In addition to discrimination, difficulty finding personalized medical care, and violence against them, transgender women also have the highest chance of contracting HIV, with transgender women of color facing the highest risk of any demographic. Being transgender also affects your access to health care and the quality of the care received, because many doctors simply don’t have the experience or knowledge to take care of transgender female unique needs.
- Getting locked up
When you go to jail or prison, your chances of contracting an STD skyrocket. Both men and women face much higher than in the streets, mainly because intravenous drug users are forced to share needles due to their scarcity; it’s not like you can go to the commissary and buy a sterile syringe to shoot up contraband drugs.
- Being a young bride
This one seems counter-intuitive at first because conventional logic dictates that marriage begets monogamy, which prevents STDs. However, the opposite seems to be true in countries where girls are married off at a young age. Young brides are three times as likely as their unmarried sexually active cohorts. Marriage at ages as young as 10 and 11 typically means the girl stays with her family, leaving her husband free to have sex with multiple partners while he waits for her to leave her family’s home. Once she does, unprotected sex is the norm, putting her at risk for all of the STDs her husband may have contracted.
Protecting yourself from STDs and HIV is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. Being armed with knowledge about your sexual health and how you can maintain it is important, especially considering the many ways STDs can be spread that aren’t immediately apparent. Making good choices means always thinking about how you can keep yourself safe from infection and disease.