Gay and bisexual teenage boys are taking just as many risks as their heterosexual counterparts, but their risk of contracting HIV is a lot higher, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a news release published Wednesday, the CDC revealed that even though American, male high school students have sex and use condoms at the same rates regardless of orientation, gay and bisexual teens are more at risk of getting HIV — mostly because of their partners, but also possibly because of drug use.
About 1.2 million Americans have HIV, and although the number of diagnoses have declined since 2005, the virus still disproportionately affects men who have sex with other men, according to a CDC fact sheet. The epidemic is spiking among young people. For example, between 2005 and 2014, HIV diagnoses of 13- to 24-year-old black and Latino men who have sex with men increased 87 percent.
But, looking into this further, the CDC found that roughly the same percentage of gay and bisexual and heterosexual teen boys had ever had sex (51 percent versus 41 percent), were sexually active (35 percent versus 30 percent), had sex with at least four partners (15 versus 11) and used condoms (48 versus 58).
The motives aren't cut-and-dried. "Sexual risk behaviors and substance use among gay and bisexual youth may be influenced by a number of complex and interrelated factors — not only education and peer norms, but also social factors like stigma, discrimination and lack of family or social support," researcher Laura Kann said in the news release.
Still, gay and bisexual teens are at such a higher risk of getting HIV because their partners are more likely to have the virus. Because there's more HIV in their sexual network, the risk of someone getting exposed to HIV increases "dramatically" every time they have sex, according to the CDC. And, as a Northwestern University study found last year, only one in five gay or bisexual teen boys have taken an HIV test.
However, the CDC found gay and bisexual teen boys are using drugs at higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts. They're eight times more likely to have ever used heroin, six times more likely to have used methamphetamines and three times more likely to have used cocaine than their straight friends. Using drugs can increase sexual risk behavior, which can increase the risk of getting HIV.
The drug use could be motivated by the pressures that often accompany being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. "Social isolation, stress from self-concealment and coming out — and even hatred that can occur at home or school or within communities — may all contribute to risk," Kann told the Advocate.
The CDC hopes the data released Wednesday will inspire new research and awareness.
"Talking about sexuality with young people is so taboo in the U.S.," Northwestern professor Brian Mustanski told HIV Equal last year. "If we’re not willing to confront that taboo, the epidemic is going to continue to move toward younger and younger people because they don’t have the information they need."