Anxious Attachment Linked with Lower Adherence to Safer Sex Measures

an art wall sculpture involving painted hubcubs and a lot of condoms
Image by bwats2 / CC BY

Back in high school, I was standing in line at the video store waiting to rent something. It was a long wait, as it usually was. So I was bored of course. Since this was way before smart phones, the natural thing to do was pick up VHS boxes and read the back of them.

I have no idea now what the name of this movie was. And no idea who starred in it. (Feel free to let me know in the comments if you know the one I’m talking about.) I didn’t end up renting it, and as far as I know, I’ve never actually watched it.

But here’s the gist, as I remember it: Two high school girls are vying for this dude’s affection. And one of them is willing to have sex without condoms and the other isn’t. That’s basically the set up. The promotional blurb doesn’t give away exactly what happens, so I don’t know. But the implication is that the girl who’s willing to go bareback is going to land this guy.

This was trumped up rather salaciously, wrapped in euphemism. But my high school brain knew exactly what they were pointing at.

I set the box back on the rack. Yeah, I remember thinking, that’s about how it would go. 

Public and Secret Beliefs About Condom Use During My Youth

Despite being scared to my wit’s end about HIV, which first became a public health crisis during my childhood and was talked about extensively during my adolescence, it was widely believed among the other young people I knew that boys really did not want to have sex with a condom. And that given the choice between a partner who would insist on one and going in without one, they’d pretty much always choose the partner who would have unsafe sex with them.

This of course resulted in all kinds of consequences. Loads of unintended teenage pregnancies. STIs for sure (although those were less immediately apparent than the pregnancies, for obvious reasons).

But I remember having it heavily impressed upon me by peers that you had to think awfully highly of yourself to insist that a partner use a condom. (The implication being that you had to be super hot by some weird metric in order to counterbalance the perceived “inconvenience” and/or decreased sensation of condom use.)

And as I didn’t think very highly of myself at all, it was basically instilled into me that I didn’t have any right to insist that partners use condoms.

Yes, in spite of all the way we were all publicly saying “use a condom, use a condom,” this was what seemed to be going on in the shadows. These were the true messages that were being sent from young person to young person in my neck of the woods.

My Beliefs About Condom Use Changed After High School

It’s weird to me now that I once had those beliefs. I do not condone them. But it would be dishonest to deny ever having them as the adult I am now. In hindsight I’m glad that I had very, very little PIV (penis in vagina) sex in high school and that most of my sexual activity was same-sex. (I hit my sexual years as a heavily gay-leaning bisexual woman.) While unprotected sex between women who don’t produce seminal fluids is not zero risk, it is, generally speaking, lower risk than sex that involves semen. So that was good at least.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I was older that I started to really reject these beliefs surrounding condom use. Part of it was realizing I had them in the first place of course (I was the proverbial fish swimming around, not understanding I was surrounded by water).

And until now, I hadn’t really considered the second piece: My attachment style changed. I was anxiously attached as a young person and developed secure attachment later in life.

And as I did, my attitudes about condom use changed.

Anxious Attachment and Riskier Sex

A recent meta-analysis dove into possible links between insecure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant) in order to see if they related to condom use. Here’s some of what it found:

  • People with anxious attachment were more likely to have more sex partners and to have sex without condoms.
  • People with avoidant attachment were likely to have more sex partners but not more likely to have unprotected sex.
  • Interestingly, they found these links were more pronounced as participants got older, although the study authors caution that this third finding is likely a statistical anomaly more reflective of small sample size than anything else and do not consider it a strong takeaway.

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In any event, I found this an interesting study and one I wanted to share because if nothing else I find it does get me thinking about my own experiences and those of people around me.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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