Let’s Talk About Sex, Anxiety, and PrEP
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a daily pill that prevents HIV transmission among key populations like gay and bisexual men. A recent study conducted by researchers at CUNY found that it also has psychological benefits.
The researchers, from Hunter College, the Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, and The Graduate Center, published their findings in The Journal of Sex Research.They surveyed 1,071 gay and bisexual men over two years, including 137 who began taking PrEP during the study.
The authors noted that prior research has found fear of HIV among gay and bisexual men to be prevalent, with anxiety persisting among some for months after engaging in condomless anal sex. That anxiety can be a barrier to subsequent out of fear of an HIV-positive result. Yet because condoms can be seen as diminishing trust, intimacy, and sexual satisfaction with a partner, “a trade-off is made where HIV infection is considered an acceptable risk.” PrEP users, in contrast, are “taking control of their sexual health,” including regular appointments for HIV testing, sexually transmitted disease assessment, and counseling.
This study sought to measure quantitative changes in sexual anxiety, satisfaction, and sexual esteem. The authors reported that they “found support for our hypothesis that individuals taking PrEP would experience a reduction in sexual anxiety after starting to use PrEP.” The drug “provides users respite from their fears.” But the study “did not find support for our hypotheses predicting an increase in both sexual satisfaction and sexual esteem while on PrEP compared to before taking PrEP.”
The paper was led by Ph.D. candidate Thomas H. F. Whitfield (Health Psychology & Clinical Science Ph.D. Program, The Graduate Center) along with several co-authors, including CUNY faculty from Hunter College (Dr. Jonathon Rendina) and the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (Dr. Christian Grov).
“One of the most important aspects of these findings is that PrEP might finally provide a turning point for sexual minority men who have spent decades worrying about sexual risk,” Rendina said in an interview with Contagion Live. “Guys who struggle to use a condom every time or for whom that simply isn’t their choice now have other (options), and these additional options aren’t just reducing risk, they’re helping men to feel less worried about having sex in the first place.”
Hunter is a leader in research in sexual and gender minority health, and was recently listed by the National Institutes of Health as one of the top institutions to receive NIH grants in this area in fiscal year 2017.