BU Faculty Study Works to Identify HIV Risk Behaviors in Asian-American Women

A new study by Assistant Professor Hyeouk Chris Hahm in AIDS and Behavior, “Gender Power Control, Sexual Experiences, Safer Sex Practices and Potential HIV Risk Behaviors among Young Asian-American Women,” analyzes their safe sex and HIV risk behaviors, and investigates the role gender power control plays in their sexual vulnerability.

According to the long-standing Theory of Gender and Power, a woman’s self-protection is often swayed by economic factors, abusive partnerships, and socialization to be sexually passive or ignorant. In turn, women with less relationship power are less likely to engage in safer sex practices such as condom use and are more likely to be involved in HIV risk behaviors. While the Theory has proved useful in predicting safer sex practices and HIV risk behaviors among low-income Latinas and women in Africa, Hahm is the first to test if this theory has merit among Asian-American women.

“For Asian-American women, the relationship between gender power and their sexual behaviors has shown complex pictures,” said Hahm. “Unlike Latinas or women in Africa, gender power control within young Asian-American women’s intimate relationships had different associations depending on the type of sexual behavior.”

Hahm’s study, which collected data from January 2010 to July 2010, examined a total of 410 young Asian-American women who are children of immigrants (1.5 or second generation).

Hahm’s research found that having a highly controlling partner did not influence condom use behaviors, and suggested that sexual decision making among Asian-American women is not necessarily pre-determined by the controlling behaviors of men. For example, the decision to forgo condom use may be explained by women’s preference to increase their sexual pleasure or to enhance intimacy within their relationship.

“In other words, it is possible that sexually experienced Asian-American women are exercising their power in sexual decision-making,” Hahm said. “They are actively choosing to forgo condom use with their heterosexual partners.”

It did, however, find that a highly controlling male partner increased the risk of engaging in anal sex, having multiple sex partners, experiencing forced sex, or having potentially risky sexual partners up to five times more than average. Hahm further clarifies that the strong relationships between women with lower power control and HIV risk behaviors could be due to a fear of a controlling male partner’s negative response, which would discourage women from exerting their own control or assertiveness.

“My follow-up analysis indicated that women who perceived themselves as having lower power were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to be engaged in HIV risk behaviors,” she said. “Understanding the role of depression for these women will be another important area of research.”

Hahm hopes HIV interventionists realize that the Theory of Gender and Power may have limited application in HIV intervention among Asian-Americans (particularly in relation to safer sex practices) and the need for a better understanding of why Asian-American women are forgoing condom use.

“More than 60 percent of Asian-American women who had sex in the last six months did not use condoms on a regular basis,” Hahm said. “This high prevalence of not using condoms may stem from the fact that they are in monogamous or long term-relationships, which we see in our data, or they may use some other methods of birth control.

“Women need to remember that other birth control methods do not protect them from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or HIV, and and our research needs to better understand what drives Asian-American women away from using condoms. That could be love, pleasure, or they may think that they are invincible from STIs or HIV. We try to understand women’s choices in their sexual behaviors through numbers and their stories.”

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized private research university with more than 30,000 students participating in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. BU consists of 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

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