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Motivations for Risky Sexual Behavior

Updated on May 15, 2011

What are Risky Sexual Behaviors?

Risky sexual behaviors encompass a wide variety of behaviors from engaging in unprotected sex, maintaining multiple sexual partners, or participating in extramarital affairs. These sexual behaviors maintain known potential to endanger physical health, emotional well-being, and risk family relationships and reputations, operating in contrast to self-preservation. Motivations associated with risky sexual behaviors explain in part the reasons why such behaviors occur despite knowledge of harmful outcomes and previous learned experiences. Understanding these motivations may also provide insight into how individuals who engage in risky sexual behaviors may be able to change their behaviors.

Why does it Matter?

The social problem of risky sexual behaviors remains important for study given the continually climbing rates of adults infected with sexually transmitted diseases and the failure of sexual health education programs to positively impact individuals’ sexual practices (Ehrhardt, Krumboltz, & Koopman, 2006). Despite widespread knowledge of the dangers of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and the numerous examples of the downfall of high-profiled individuals who lose jobs, family, and status as a result of their sexual behaviors, individuals still engage in risky sexual behaviors. As a result, addressing this particular social problem requires more than just distributing knowledge to individuals. Understanding the motivations associated with risky sexual behaviors, counselors and therapists may be able to positively impact the behaviors of their clients. Increased knowledge of the reasons why individuals engage in risky sexual behaviors will hopefully influence how sexual health information remains distributed and decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The motivations of risky sexual behaviors include self-efficacy, power, and personality characteristics.

Some Motivating Factors

Self-efficacy theory deals with how well individuals expect themselves to perform under certain circumstances. The development of beliefs related to self-efficacy results from past experiences, witnessing the behaviors of others, and talking with others, as well as physiological states within the body that signal appropriate behavioral reactions. The impact of self-efficacy on behavior may involve the degree to which individuals put forth effort to engage in certain tasks, the choice of tasks chosen, and how individuals will react to unexpected challenges and new experiences (Reeve, 2005). In relation to risky sexual behaviors, self-efficacy may be measured a number of different ways. Semple, Patterson, and Grant (2004) examine how self-efficacy measures the extent to which individuals feel they can negotiate safe sex practices with potential partners or discuss the disclosure of sexually transmitted diseases with potential partners. This particular study reveals that gay men with low self-efficacy for both negotiation skills and disclosure were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors (Semple, Patterson, & Grant, 2004), mirroring the work of Jennifer Pearson (2006) on adolescent sexual behaviors that argues that adolescents with high self-efficacy in tactics of sexual negotiation remain less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. As a result, individuals who engage in risky sexual behaviors may benefit from programs designed specially to address an increase of self-efficacy in these areas. Such programs would include in part exercises and role-plays that generate positive outcome expectations, so that individuals may develop the experiences of engaging in positive discussions concerning willingness to use condoms or openness to revealing HIV-status (Semple, Patterson, & Grant, 2004). Self-efficacy theory may also be utilized to examine the degree to which individuals feel they will benefit from such programs or be able to refrain from risky sexual behaviors in the future. To improve self-efficacy in these areas, individuals may benefit from learning from individuals who have successfully changed their risky sexual behaviors or individuals who maintain high self-efficacy in avoiding risky sexual behaviors.

In addition to self-efficacy, power motivations remain associated with individuals who engage in risky sexual behaviors. Leaders such as politicians and CEOs of large companies generate headlines with their sexual scandals. Individuals become leaders through motivation related to the need for power. The need for power manifests itself through the ability to impact the lives of others and exert control or influence over others (Reeve, 2005). Power needs may extend into personal relationships and lead to risky behaviors. In situations where social inhibitions are weak, individuals with power motivations exhibit tendencies towards aggressive and impulse behaviors (Reeve, 2005). Situations of low inhibition, such being under the influence of alcohol, often led to risky sexual behaviors (Hall, Fals-Stewart, and Fincham, 2008). As a result, powerful individuals may resort to their impulses and aggressive behaviors in social situations in which their inhibitions are low. Recognizing power motivations’ relationship to risky sexual behaviors, individuals may begin to recognize their tendency to impulses and aggressive behaviors. Extreme distress may result in neurotic individuals seeking comfort from risky sexual behaviors. Pleasures that result from risky sexual behaviors may drive extraverted individuals to continue to seek out such experiences. In order to reduce the risk of engaging in risky sexual behaviors, such individuals should establish goals related to preventing themselves for being in situations that reduce their inhibitions.

Personality characteristics also may impact individual motivation to engage in risky sexual behaviors. According to Cooper, Agocha, and Sheldon (2000), both neurotic and extraverted individuals may engage in risky sexual behaviors. Neurotic individuals engage in risky behaviors as a coping style to deal with negative emotional states. In contrast, extraverted individuals engage in risky sexual behaviors to enhance their positive emotions and experiences. Deposition to impulsive behaviors serves as a factor that interacts with neuroticism and extraversion to predict conditions of risky sexual behaviors (Cooper, Agocha, & Sheldon, 2000).

In addition to neuroticism and extraversion, arousal also provides an understanding of the motivational behaviors associated with risky sexual behaviors. Arousal levels may explain the personality characteristics of individuals who regularly engage in risky sexual behaviors. Individuals needing high brain stimulations may be sensation seekers and risk takers trying for new experiences that increase arousal (Reeve, 2005). This particular personality characteristic provides insight into the motivations of men who have anonymous sex partners (Semple, Patterson, & Grant, 2004). Such individuals receive thrills from new and dangerous sexual experiences. They may need to replace their risky sexual behaviors with other sensation seeking behaviors in order to fulfill this aspect of their personality. In this manner, personality characteristics may provide clues to motivations for risky sexual behaviors and explain the differing reasons that individuals give for why they engage in risky sexual behaviors.

Changing How We Address Such Behaviors?

Motivations of risky sexual behaviors remain complex. Varying factors associated with self-efficacy, power, and personality work to explain why certain individuals are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and under what conditions such behaviors remain likely to occur. In addition, these motivations explain how such individuals would be guided towards behavioral change. Given the various factors related to motivations associated with risky sexual behaviors, programs that address change in the behaviors of those who engage in risky sexual behaviors should recognize the various motivational factors in the design of such programs. Individuals may seek to increase their self-efficacy in dealing with resisting risky sexual behaviors, recognize how power motivations impact sexual behavior, and develop different coping mechanisms that utilize personality characteristics.

This article is an attempt to understand why human beings continue to engage in risky sexual behaviors that have no history in producing longterm positive results. And, I am in no way passing judgment or condemning such behaviors.


Cooper, M.L., Agocha, V. B., & Sheldon, M. S. (2000). A motivational perspective on risky behaviors: The role of personality and affect regulatory processes. Journal of Personality, 68(6), 1059-1088.

Ehrhardt, B.L., Krumboltz, J.D., & Koopman, C. (2006). Training peer sexual health educators: Changes in knowledge, counseling self-efficacy, and sexual risk behavior. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 2(1), 39-55.

Hall, J.H., Fals-Stewart, W., & Fincham, F.D. (2008). Risky sexual behavior among married alcoholic men. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(2), 287-292.

Pearson, J. (2006). Personal control, self-efficacy in sexual negotiation, and contraceptive risk among adolescents: The role of gender. Sex Roles, 54, 615-625.

Reeve, J. (2005). Understanding motivation and emotion (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Wiley.

Semple, S.J., Patterson, T.L., & Grant, I. (2004). Psychosocial characteristics and sexual risk behavior of hiv+ men who have anonymous sex partners. Psychology and Health, 19(1), 71-87.


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