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Sexually Transmitted Diseases:

Drug Injection and Sexual Mixing Patterns of Drug-Using Male Sex Workers

Williams, Mark L. PhD*; Bowen, Anne M. PhD†; Timpson, Sandra PhD*; Blair Keel, K. MPH*

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From the *Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, School of Public Health, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, Texas; and Department of Psychology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Reprint requests: Dr. Mark Williams, Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, School of Public Health, University of Texas-Houston, 7000 Fannin, Suite 2516, Houston, TX 77030. E-mail:

Received November 8, 2002,

revised January 31, 2003, and accepted February 3, 2003.

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Background: Drug-using male sex workers (DUMSWs) are known to have large numbers of drug injection and sex partners.

Goals: The purpose of this study was to describe the assortative and disassortative drug injection and sexual mixing patterns of DUMSWs. Implications of the high rates of disassortative mixing patterns of DUMSWs for HIV infection are discussed. Implications of disassortative mixing of DUMSWS with regard to DUMSWs bridging disparate HIV risk groups are evaluated.

Study Design: Data were collected from 89 DUMSWS. Data on up to six drug injection and six sex partners were collected from respondents. One hundred drug injection and 169 sex respondent/partner pairs were analyzed for the proportions of pairs that were concordant (like) or discordant (unlike) in gender, trading sex for money, race/ethnicity, and age cohort. For race/ethnicity and age, within-group differences were assessed with chi-square statistics.

Results: Data showed high proportions of discordant respondent/partner pairs for both drug injection and sex by gender, trading sex for money, race/ethnicity, and age. Significant within-group differences in rates of discordant pairs were found for both behaviors in relation to race/ethnicity and age. Minority persons and respondents 19 years of age or younger were more likely to be in discordant pairs.

Conclusions: Direct assessment of HIV risk posed by the mixing patterns was not possible. Elaborating the mechanisms by which DUMSWs might act as an epidemiologic bridge is complex and involves more variables than were explored in this study. Nevertheless, such a study would be worthwhile.

EPIDEMIOLOGIC FACTORS CONTRIBUTING to prevalence and incidence of behaviorally transmitted infections, such as STIs and HIV, are not equally distributed in a risk population. 1 Infections follow paths of behavioral interactions that correspond with individual partner choices. However, individuals do not mix uniformly or homogeneously within a population, and these patterns of mixing have an effect on the dynamics of a behavioral disease epidemic. All populations demonstrate assortative mixing (individuals choosing like partners) and disassortative mixing (individuals choosing unlike partners). Assortative mixing produces a quick epidemic restricted to the subgroups in which a pathogen is introduced, while disassortative mixing produces a sustained epidemic that progresses slowly and widely throughout a general population. 2,3 The importance of disassortative mixing is that it provides a bridge of infection from one population group to another. 1,4

Sociodemographic characteristics are population factors that tend to act as natural mixing boundaries. 5,6 Age cohorts are one boundary. Most sexual relationships occur within age cohorts. Mixing across age cohorts has the potential to expose one cohort to pathogens prevalent in another age cohort. Sexual mixing across age cohorts has been implicated in HIV transmission from older to younger age cohorts in blacks and gay men. 7–10 Needle sharing across age cohorts has also been found to be a route of HIV transmission from older to younger drug injectors. 11 Sexual orientation and gender are also mixing boundaries. Sexual mixing across sexual orientations and genders by bisexual men has been implicated as a method of HIV transmission between homosexual men and heterosexual women. 12–15

Although not usually thought of as a mixing boundary, routes of drug ingestion may be relevant to HIV transmission, particularly in combination with other sociodemographic characteristics. Mixing across groups of drug injectors who have sex with men and heterosexual injectors has been proposed as a path to groups of heterosexual injectors. 16,17 Sexual mixing across groups of injecting drug users and nonusers has also been proposed as a pathway for HIV to cross from one group to another. 18–20

Drug-using male sex workers (DUMSWs) are known to have large numbers of partners with whom they inject drugs and have sex. 21–23 The purpose of this study was to describe the behavioral mixing patterns of DUMSWs that are relevant to the transmission of HIV infection. Respondent/partner pairs were examined in two behavioral groups: pairs in which the respondent/partner injected drugs and pairs in which the respondent/partner had sex. Mixing patterns were examined for each type of pair by gender, race/ethnicity, age cohort, and participation in sex work.

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The study was conducted between August 2001 and January 2002 in Houston and was nested in a larger study intended to determine the efficacy of an intervention to increase condom use by drug-using street-based male sex workers. A university committee for the protection of human subjects reviewed and approved study procedures. Procedures for this study were consistent with those of the larger study.

The sample for the original study was created with use of a targeted sampling plan. 24,25 Key informant interviews were used to identify neighborhoods where male sex workers solicited money for sex. Street solicitation was confirmed by direct observation. The neighborhood in which most men trade sex for money has historically been identified with the gay community. The neighborhood's population is diverse, comprising whites, blacks, and Hispanics of all economic strata. The neighborhood's many restaurants and entertainment spots attract large numbers of people from all areas of the city. Solicitation is largely conducted on streets that surround gay bars and clubs, which are distributed throughout the neighborhood.

After identifying and confirming areas where solicitation was taking place, a trained outreach worker contacted some of the men believed to be soliciting sex for money. As a means of introduction, the outreach worker offered condoms, HIV prevention information, and business cards. Contacts were then engaged in conversation, and they were asked to go to a storefront data collection center to be screened for eligibility.

Men who presented for screening were informed of the intent of the study, that participation was voluntary, and that if they qualified and decided to participate they could refuse to answer specific questions. Participation was limited to male sex workers who were age 16 years and older, self-identified themselves as male, had exchanged sex for money in the previous week, and had smoked crack cocaine or injected an illicit substance in the 48 hours before being screened.

Once written informed consent was obtained, participants provided a urine sample that was tested for cocaine or opioid metabolites to confirm recent drug use. In addition, to confirm participation in sex work, men were asked a series of questions about soliciting money for sex. Responses were evaluated for consistency with current information provided by key informants. If a urine sample was negative or if information about street solicitation was inconsistent, the individual was not eligible for this study.

Trained research assistants conducted interviews in a storefront center in private offices. Participants were paid $20 for their time and the costs of transportation to the storefront center.

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Data were collected with a modified version of the Bridge Group Assessment Questionnaire. 26 The questionnaire collects three types of egocentric network data on a respondent and up to six recent drug-using partners. Data were recorded directly into computer files. The data entry program was designed to flag questionable responses for clarification and to preclude out-of-range responses.

Data were collected on the following: the respondent, the partner, and the relationship between the respondent and the partner, as reported by the respondent. A recent drug-use partner was defined as an individual with whom the respondent had smoked crack cocaine or had injected a drug in the previous 30 days. Data on the respondent included sociodemographic characteristics, drug use, and sexual behaviors.

Data on the partner were drug use, gender, race/ethnicity, age, and participation in sex work. Drug use was measured as the type of drug use and whether the drug was injected. Gender was measured as male/female. Race/ethnicity was measured as white, black, Hispanic, and other. Age of the partner was recorded as 19 years or less, 20 to 29 years, or 30 years or older. The partner's participation in sex work was measured as a dichotomous (trade/no trade) response. We expected that respondents might not know the age of the partner or if he or she was engaged in sex work. For these two measures, a “don't know” response was allowed.

Relationship measures were constructed for the drug use and the sexual pair. Drug use by the pair was measured as smoking crack cocaine or injecting a drug. Sexual behaviors were measured as vaginal sex, insertive anal sex, receptive anal sex, and condom use during vaginal or anal sex.

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Analyses were conducted on respondent/partner pairs. Eighty-nine men provided data on 353 drug-using partners. Pairs included in the analyses were limited to 49 pairs who injected drugs, 118 pairs who had sex, and 51 pairs had both injected drugs and had sex. These pairs were chosen for analysis because drug injection and vaginal/anal sex directly transmit HIV. One hundred thirty-five pairs that smoked crack cocaine but did not inject drugs or have sex were excluded from the analyses.

Analyses were conducted separately for drug injection and sex pairs. Respondent and partner characteristics were examined to determine how like (concordant) or dislike (discordant) they were on gender, trading sex for money, race/ethnicity, and age. Pairs with “don't know” responses on the variables of partner trading sex for money or partner age were excluded from the relevant analyses. The distributions of concordant/discordant pairs across race/ethnicity and age were assessed with Pearson chi-square statistics. The proportion of concordant pairs, calculated as the percentage of the total pairs possessing the same characteristic, was used as indicative of assortative needle use or sex partner mixing. The proportion of discordant pairs, calculated as the percentage of the total partner pairs possessing discordant characteristics, was considered indicative of disassortative mixing.

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Drug Injection Pairs

Table 1 shows drug injection pairs by gender, trading sex for money, race/ethnicity, and age cohort. Less than a quarter of the 100 drug injection pairs (22%) were gender-concordant. A quarter of injection pairs (25%) were sex trading–discordant, where the partner was not engaged in trading sex for money. More than a quarter of male/male injection pairs (27%) were trading sex for money–discordant. Of the male/female injection pairs, about a fifth (18%) were trading sex for money–discordant.

Table 1
Table 1
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About a third (30%) of drug injecting pairs were race/ethnicity-discordant. There were significant differences in the distribution of concordant/discordant pairs across race/ethnicity (P < 0.000). Most Hispanic respondents (91%) had injection partners who were race/ethnicity-discordant. Two fifths (40%) of black injection pairs were race/ethnicity-discordant, as were about a tenth (14%) of the partners of white respondents.

Respondents reported the ages of 90 of the 100 injecting partners. Twenty-nine injection pairs (35%) were age-discordant. The distribution of concordant/discordant pairs significantly differed across age categories (P < 0.000). Almost three quarters (70%) of respondents 19 years or younger had age-discordant injecting partners. A third (33%) of respondents aged 20 to 29 years and about a fourth (23%) of respondents aged 30 years or older had age-discordant injecting partners.

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Sex Pairs

As shown in Table 2, 169 pairs had sex. A quarter of sex pairs (26%) were gender-discordant. More than two thirds of sex pairs (66%) were trading sex for money–discordant. Almost two thirds (62%) of the male/male sex pairs were trading sex–discordant. More than four fifths (83%) of male/female pairs were trading sex for money–discordant.

Table 2
Table 2
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About a third (30%) of sex pairs were race/ethnicity-discordant. There were significant differences in concordant/discordant pairs across race/ethnicity (P < 0.000). Hispanic respondents had the highest rate of race/ethnicity-discordant sex partners (86%). More than a third (37%) of black respondents and a fifth (19%) of white respondents had sex partners who were race/ethnicity-discordant.

All but nine respondents reported the age category of their sex partners. About half (47%) of the sex pairs were age-discordant. There were significant differences in discordant pairs across age categories (P < 0.000). Three quarters (76%) of respondents aged 19 years or younger had age-discordant sex partners. About half (49%) of respondents aged 20 to 29 years had age-discordant sex partners, as did more than a third (35%) of respondents aged 30 years or older.

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The data on the drug injection and sexual partner choices of DUMSWs presents considerable patterns of mixing, as suggested by discordance in respondent/partner characteristics. Mixing is evident for drug injection and sex, both behaviors that have the potential to transmit HIV. Substantial rates of mixing are evident across genders and—by inference—sexual orientations, since by definition DUMSWs who have sex with female partners also have sex with men. The majority of both male and female sex partners were not engaged in sex work, a circumstance suggesting considerable mixing between respondents engaged in trading sex for money and partners not engaged. The rate of discordance in trading sex for money was particularly notable for male/female sexual pairs. The increased risk with this type of mixing is for the partner not trading sex for money.

For both drug injection and sex, mixing across age cohorts is high. The results suggest a negative linear mixing pattern associated with age, because discordant partner choice decreases as age increases. Mixing across age cohorts may be especially relevant in understanding risk as it relates to younger DUMSWS. It is assumed that younger members of a group are least likely to be infected with an STI or HIV. 7 If this assumption is correct, then younger DUMSWs or younger partners of DUMSWs are at greater risk of infection than their older counterparts. DUMSWs 19 years of age and younger have likely just begun trading sex for money and, if doing so, injecting drugs. Consequently, mixing across ages may provide a means for linking older groups of injectors and sex partners to younger age cohorts of male sex workers.

The data demonstrated that mixing across race/ethnicity is also high, especially for minority drug-using male sex workers. Most injection or sex partners of Hispanic DUMSWs were whites or blacks. More than a third of the injection or sex partners of blacks were whites or Hispanics. These findings may be noteworthy for two reasons. First, Laumann and Youm 6 found high rates of sexual mixing between STD core and periphery groups among blacks. Second, studies have consistently shown that blacks have disproportionately higher rates of HIV than whites, especially young black men who have sex with men. 27,28 Mixing by DUMSWs across racial/ethnic groups may provide a mechanism for linking the high-risk or core individuals of one racial/ethnic group with individuals of another group on the periphery.

The data are not without limitations, and these need to be considered when interpreting the results of the study. The study is limited because it is cross-sectional, and we are unable to assess how mixing patterns might change over time or causality. The sample used for the study was a convenience sample, and the results cannot be generalized to other populations of DUMSWs. Generalizability is further affected by the relatively small sample size, especially African and Hispanic DUMSWs, and local conditions, such as the neighborhood and city in which the data were collected.

All data were self-reported by the respondent for both the respondent and the partner. Identification as a male sex worker was by self-report. Men were questioned about prevailing conditions related to sex work, such as the prices charged for specific sex acts, and these responses were compared to information obtained from key informants. However, the veracity of claims to be engaged in sex worker was not further verified. Like reports of sexual behaviors, activities that would definitively confirm sex work are not usually observable.

Furthermore, while self-report measures of drug use and sexual behaviors of a respondent are reliable and valid, the reliability and the validity of data reported by a respondent about a drug injection or sex partner are unknown. We attempted to attenuate error associated with recall of a partner's characteristics and behaviors by limiting reporting to the previous 30 days. We also tried to limit recall error by eliminating data on paid sex partners, as paid partners are those about whom DUMSWs are least likely to be knowledgeable. The number of recent partners on whom data were collected may also limit the findings. Some DUMSWs likely had more than six recent drug-using partners, and some might have had sex partners in the 30 days before the interview with whom they did not use drugs. An additional limitation is that we were unable to collect HIV/STI biologic markers. Therefore, although we can infer risk, we were unable to directly assess HIV risk posed by the mixing patterns.

These limitations notwithstanding, the study provides useful data on the drug injection and sexual mixing patterns of an important HIV risk group. It has been suggested that male sex workers act as epidemiologic bridges between risk groups. 21–23 From these data, we can infer that DUMSWs might bridge gender, sexual orientation, age, racial/ethnic, and sex work groups. The potential for DUMSWs to bridge networks is particularly evident when the partner, although a drug user, is not engaged in trading sex for money. Elaborating the mechanisms by which DUMSWs might act as an epidemiologic bridge is complex and involves more variables than were explored in this study. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that such a study would be worthwhile.

More research remains to be done before the HIV risk dynamics of DUMSWs can be completely described and before more effective control measures can be fully understood and implemented. For example, since all partners in this study had injected drugs or had had sex with a DUMSW within the previous 30 days, the partners are concurrent. 3,29 The relevance of focusing on concurrency in future studies is that having concurrent partners increases the risk of transmitting STIs and HIV among the partners. An investigation of rates of disassortative mixing across concurrent partners of DUMSWs could greatly enhance our understanding of risk dynamics of this at-risk group and the groups with which they interact. As of yet there have been no study reports describing the types of partner concurrency among DUMSWs, the rates of mixing among concurrent partners, and the impact that different types of concurrency might have on HIV/STI transmission.

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