Women, Sex: AIDS Having Little Impact

Times Staff Writer

Contradicting the idea that AIDS has brought about a cease-fire in America's extensively chronicled sexual revolution, a new survey finds that the proportion of sexually active women in the United States has increased over the last five years.

Between 1982 and 1987, according to the latest of two surveys of American women's sexual practices, the proportion of women between 18 and 44 who reported they were currently sexually active increased from 68% to 76%.

In addition, 45% of teen-agers 15 to 17 reported they were sexually active, a finding that, combined with the overall increase, appears to show that the sexual equivalent of the so-called "just say no" campaigns have failed to have any significant effect, a research team concludes.

Significantly in the Minority

Moreover, while concern about getting acquired immune deficiency syndrome has increased the proportion of women who identify the condom as their preferred method of birth control, condom users remain significantly in the minority.

Overall, the survey finds, in the five-year period in question the proportion of women relying on condoms as their chief contraceptive method increased from 12% to 16%. Among unmarried women--the group for whom researchers agreed the risk of contracting AIDS and other venereal diseases is highest--the proportion increased from 9% to 16%.

The findings are among key points in a report scheduled for release today by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., whose products include birth control pills, diaphragms and contraceptive gels.

"In the half-decade between 1982 and 1987, the proportion of American women in sexual relationships increased," Guttmacher researchers observed. "They became better protected against unintended pregnancy and, to some extent, against sexually transmitted diseases.

"Nevertheless, a nontrivial minority of all women at risk, and an even larger proportion of the unmarried, were not using a contraceptive method."

Young women, whose levels of sexual activity appear to be increasing, may choose to participate freely in sex, the report speculated, because young people believe that they will not get AIDS and that they can determine someone's sexual health by his or her appearance.

The survey, culled from questionnaires completed in April, 1987, by almost 8,400 women across the country between the ages of 18 to 44, with a separate sample covering 3,060 teen-agers between 15 and 17, also found that:

--Despite the efforts of a plethora of public education programs, 8% of all women who are at risk of getting pregnant used no contraception, with 14% of unmarried women reporting they used none. The percentages included minor statistical adjustments. The figures showed only a slight drop from 1982, when 8% of all women and 16% of unmarried women said they used no birth control.

--Sterilization remains the most popular form of birth control--identified by 36% of women last year compared with 34% in 1982. Most of those women are married, divorced or widowed; unmarried women recorded a slight decline in sterilization, from 14% to 13%.

--Use of the Pill increased from 27% to 32%, with unmarried women choosing it in 48% of all cases in 1987 versus 43% five years before.

--While a majority of married and unmarried women say they have a favorable opinion about condoms as a contraceptive method--61% of all women and 59% of married women--the favorable rating is significantly at odds with the proportion who actually use the method.

In all, said Jacqueline Darroch Forrest, vice president for research at the Guttmacher Institute, the findings reflect a surprising continuation of the upward trend in sexual activity. "I frankly did not expect to see an increase in sexual activity," Forrest said. "I thought of it at least staying level, if not slightly lower. But it has gone slightly higher.

"I think the message is that we need to continue and probably increase (broadly based public health education programs focusing on a complex variety of sexual behavior issues). The attempts to try to decrease levels of sexual activity do not look like they have been successful."

The report concluded that evidence of continuing growth in sexual activity among women of all age groups is so strong that "these findings run counter to the assumption many have made that emphasis on urging teen-agers to say no . . . and concern about AIDS have caused large proportions of heterosexuals to abstain from nonmarital sexual intercourse."

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