God, Safe Sex and HIV

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Religion and HIV prevention can sometimes collide, but is there a relationship between strong faith and safer sexual practices among HIV-positive people? Behavioral scientist David Kanouse discusses his new study investigating risk and religion with Farai Chideya.


This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We'll get to our regular Roundtable segment in just a minute. But first, we take a look at a new study by the RAND Corporation. It says that HIV positive people who consider religion important are less likely to have risky sex than those who don't.

I spoke with David Kanouse, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and a principal investigator in the study. He says he started looking at the behavior of HIV positive people years ago.

Mr. DAVID KANOUSE (Senior Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation): There was a study that RAND had been doing of a national sample of people living with HIV. And the study's focus was really on their medical care and what kind of treatments they received and the access to care and so on. But we saw it as an opportunity to look at the important issue of how people deal with sexuality when they are HIV positive.

And so we conducted an interview with a large group - about 1,400 people. We got the idea of looking at religion when we tried to explore of what seemed to matter in people's lives.

CHIDEYA: Tell us exactly what you found.

Mr. KANOUSE: Well, what we've found is that people who say that religion is important in their lives and answer a number of other questions about church attendance and things like that, in a positive way that puts that front and center in their lives, are less likely to engage in behavior that could transmit HIV to other people.

That is, they have fewer partners and they're more likely to use protection with partners who are HIV negative or whose status they don't really know. And this turned out to be quite important even when we control for other variables.

One thing that we didn't look at is the issue of abstinence. We focused on people who are all having sex within - over the last six months. And so it is a statistically significant difference between those two groups.

CHIDEYA: Our program focuses a lot on the African-American community. Did you have a significant African-American sample in your study?

Mr. KANOUSE: Yes, we do. About a third of the participants were African-American.

CHIDEYA: And did you find any differences in their patterns of behavior compared to the majority of population, or was it pretty much across the board that these findings were the case?

Mr. KANOUSE: We were focusing on religiosity, and so we took account of race and controlled for that. We wanted to look across the board, across races at the importance of religiosity. But of course you noticed in looking at the research that the pattern of what kind of church membership people have, for example, is a little bit different by race.

The African-Americans are more likely to be associated with evangelical churches, and people across the board, regardless of race, who were evangelical in their denominational affiliation, were less likely to engage in risky behavior.

CHIDEYA: What does this study tell you about whether or not churches or other religious institutions would be useful in the fight against AIDS?

Mr. KANOUSE: Well, it tells me, first of all, that there is the potential for churches to play a very positive role in people's lives. Now, in our study we find a strong association, but we can't pinpoint exactly what that comes from.

CHIDEYA: And finally, were there any differences among different religious affiliations in terms of how they dealt with HIV and sex?

Mr. KANOUSE: Well, we did find that people with Catholic denominational affiliations were more likely to use condoms. We really don't have an explanation for that. It is - given the teachings of the church around birth control, it's kind of paradoxical.

CHIDEYA: Well, it's fascinating stuff. David Kanouse, thank you so much.

Mr. KANOUSE: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: That was David Kanouse, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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