The Psychology of Addictive Behavior in Young Gay Men

Lead author Dorian Traube

USC School of Social Work professor Dorian Traube has built upon current studies showing that young men who have sex with men are more likely to participate in dangerous behavior such as drug use and unprotected sex.

In a new study published in the Psychology of Addictive Behavior, Traube looks at the building blocks of why young gay men are more prone to drug and alcohol use.

“Adolescence, when you have the bulk of development, is normally an incredibly vulnerable time,” said Traube, the lead author.

“In the case of young men who have sex with men, you are adding even more volatility. They may be stigmatized. Their family may reject them. They may be bullied at school. Their judgment is clouded, making their problem-solving more difficult.”

Homelessness, discrimination and low self-confidence often go hand in hand with substance abuse in this population, the study found.

The issue of growing up gay recently has received more attention because of a series of suicides that made national news and sparked a campaign called “It Gets Better,” which features videos telling gay teens that life will be better when they reach adulthood.

“While the message of ‘it gets better’ is an important one, it shouldn’t have to get better,” Traube said. “We need to treat our children, our teens, better. We need to build a better environment and give them better tools to make it through.”

Researchers looked at the participants’ employment, housing situation, emotional state and demographic background to identify which behaviors in the decision-making process related to drug use among young men who have sex with men. The subjects did not always identify themselves as gay.

The study found that stressors – such as homelessness, homophobia, discrimination or violence – made these young men feel vulnerable and less confident, leading to choices that were not always in the best interest of their health or their futures such as drug and alcohol use.

Data for this study came from the first wave of the Healthy Young Men study, which looked at substance use and sexual risk behavior among young men who have sex with men in Los Angeles, conducted from 2005 to 2008. Traube used a set of questions that previously had been applied to diabetes and cardiac health research to determine risk factors for gay teens.

“These teens need unique and intense support during this time in their development that will aid them in building confidence, feeling that they have hope for their future and understanding how decisions they make as a teen can impact their future,” Traube said.

The study by Traube, Ian W. Holloway of USC and Sheree M. Schrager of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.