A large number of unmarried, sexually active Canadian adults aren't using condoms because they think monogamy is as reliable a form of protection, an attitude that puts them at high risk of contracting and spreading sexually transmitted infections - many of which have no discernible symptoms.
The findings emerge from an article released yesterday by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada and Statistics Canada.
The article was based on a large-scale national study that asked 19,455 unmarried, sexually active adults aged 20 to 34 who were not living in common-law arrangements, "Did you use a condom the last time you had intercourse?"
More than 50 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men said they had not used a condom. The study found that condom use declined steadily with age, despite the fact that the risk of infection did not.
"The 20-year-old uses condoms less often than the 16-year-old, and the 25-year-old uses condoms less often than the 20-year-old, and all the way up the line," said Alexander McKay, Toronto-based research co-ordinator of SIECCAN.
A third of respondents said they had multiple sexual partners in the previous year, either concurrently or one after the other.
Among the respondents who had three, four or more partners in the past year, 40 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men did not use a condom the last time they had sex.
"When you're looking at this kind of population, you would expect condom use to be higher than this," Mr. McKay said.
The main reasons for going without protection pivot around a false sense of security, he said. "Canadians young and old, including well-educated adult Canadians, haven't got a clue how common STIs are. They also haven't got a clue that most cases of STI have no symptoms. You don't know if you're infected and you don't know if your partner is infected."
Ignorance and a lack of symptoms lead people to believe that monogamy will protect them: "Even though they think they're conservative because they don't sleep around, they are in fact serial monogamists who in each of those relationships practises unprotected sex. That equals multiple partners [and] unprotected sex, which is a recipe for STI infection."
Most cases of common sexually transmitted infections such as HPV and herpes are asymptomatic, meaning people can be silent carriers. Approximately 70 per cent of sexually active people will acquire HPV, up to 20 per cent carry genital herpes and up to 10 per cent of women have chlamydia, Mr. McKay said.
"It's not necessarily that STIs are on the rise or on the decline. It's that they're at very high levels," he said.
As for why women are using condoms substantially less often than men, the report provides several clues.
The study shows women's condom use mirrors that of men a few years their senior, probably because women are having sex with older men. Older men use condoms less than younger men, and the behaviour may be imprinting on their young girlfriends.
The results varied provincially as well. Compared with the national average, single women living in New Brunswick and Quebec were less likely to use condoms, as were single men in Quebec.
"One of the challenges is that this demographic is out of school now," Mr. McKay said. "We need to beef up efforts at public education around sexually transmitted infections and the media certainly needs to play a better role in educating people about the basic facts, given that the media is eager to convey sexuality related messages and imagery."
The article, co-authored by Statscan analyst Michelle Rotterman, was based on data collected from one-hour-long telephone and in-person interviews conducted for the 2003 and 2005 cycles of the national Canadian Community Health Survey.