Original article| Volume 63, ISSUE 4, P429-434, October 2018

Intimate Relationships and Sexual Behavior in Young Women withDepression



      To better understand links between depressive symptoms and high-risk sexual behavior in young women.


      We conducted semistructured interviews with young women from three primary care clinics who reported clinically significant depressive symptoms, had penile-vaginal sexual intercourse within the past 6 months, and met at least one sexual risk criterion (N = 16, age 16–23 years, racially/ethnically diverse). We transcribed the interview recordings, organized and coded the data, and conducted a directed content analysis.


      Participants described a complex interrelation between depression and intimate relationships and sexual behavior. Depression had negative effects on relationships, sexual motives and experiences (including safety), and feelings about oneself in sexual situations. Participants reported difficulty in developing and maintaining intimate relationships. Although many participants reported less interest in and emotional energy for sex, several were having sex frequently to manage depressive symptoms. Generally, the young women described sex as unsafe (e.g., no condom) owing to impaired judgment, increased impulsivity, apathy, and alcohol. As a result, sometimes their efforts to feel better by having sex led them to feeling worse (e.g., ashamed and worthless).


      Depressed young women may limit intimate relationships, yet engage in frequent and unsafe sex to cope with their symptoms. Their efforts to feel better may provide only temporary relief or result in feeling worse. Depressed young women would benefit from tailored interventions that identify and counter unhealthy thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and patterns related to sexual relationships and behavior; minimize factors that impair healthy decision-making; and foster development of alternative affect regulation strategies.


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