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International Travel as a Context for Sexual and Contraceptive Behaviors: A Qualitative Study of Young Women Traveling Outside the U.S.

Abstract

International travel is popular worldwide, yet its implications for sexual and reproductive health are not fully understood. Few studies have examined the contextual factors that shape women’s sexual and contraceptive behaviors—and thus, their risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—while traveling outside their home country. In this qualitative study, female university students with recent (n = 25) or upcoming (n = 19) travel outside the U.S. completed semi-structured interviews from October 2015 to March 2017. Transcripts were analyzed for themes related to contraceptive and sexual behaviors: (1) participants’ pre-travel expectations of sex; (2) the circumstances surrounding sexual encounters with men while traveling; (3) negotiation about condom and contraception use with partners; and (4) factors affecting contraceptive adherence. Participants generally expected to be abstinent during travel, citing myriad rationales that included personal values, no perceived opportunities for sex, and the nature of the trip. Some travelers had unexpected sexual encounters, involving health-protecting behaviors and risk-taking (e.g., unprotected sex, substance use). New sexual partnerships were fueled by increased attention from men, situational disinhibition, and perceived heightened intimacy. International travel brought many contraceptive considerations (adequacy of supplies, access to refrigeration, time zone differences, etc.) as well as obstacles that triggered contraceptive lapses and discontinuation. Pill users described the most challenges, while travelers using intrauterine devices expressed appreciation for their maintenance-free contraception. This study suggests complex associations between international travel and young women’s sexual and reproductive health. Some travelers were more vulnerable to situational risk factors, while others may have been more insulated. We identify potential intervention opportunities via clinical services, education, and policy to reduce young women’s risk of adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes while traveling abroad. We urge greater recognition of and conversations about contraceptive lapse and unintended pregnancy as potential health risks for female travelers of reproductive age, just as clinical guidelines acknowledge travel-associated STI.

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Funding

Research funding was provided by an internal award from the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Dr. Martins’ efforts on data analysis and manuscript preparation were also funded, in part, by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Leadership Education in Maternal and Child Public Health (US-DHHS/HRSA T76-MC00005).

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Correspondence to Summer L. Martins.

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Martins, S.L., Hellerstedt, W.L., Bowman, S.B. et al. International Travel as a Context for Sexual and Contraceptive Behaviors: A Qualitative Study of Young Women Traveling Outside the U.S.. Arch Sex Behav 49, 1039–1052 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-1400-2

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Keywords

  • Contraception
  • Sexual behavior
  • Young adults
  • Tourism