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Changing Patterns of Sexual Risk Behavior Among London Gay Men: 1998–2008

Lattimore, Sam PhD*; Thornton, Alicia MSc*; Delpech, Valerie MBBS*; Elford, Jonathan PhD

Sexually Transmitted Diseases: March 2011 - Volume 38 - Issue 3 - p 221-229
doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3181f2ebe1
Original Study
Free

Objectives: To examine changes in the sexual behavior of London gay men between 1998 and 2008.

Methods: Gay men using London gyms were surveyed annually between 1998 and 2005, and again in 2008 (n = 6064; range, 482–834 per year). Information was collected on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) status of the respondent, unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) in the previous 3 months, type (main or casual) and HIV status of partner for UAI. Nonconcordant UAI (ncUAI) was defined as UAI with a partner of unknown or discordant HIV status. Concordant UAI (cUAI) was defined as UAI with a partner of the same HIV status (“serosorting”).

Results: Between 1998 and 2008, the percentage of men reporting UAI increased from 24.3% to 36.6% (P = 0.07). This overall increase concealed important differences between nonconcordant and concordant UAI. While the percentage of men engaging in cUAI increased steadily between 1998 and 2008 (9.8%, 20.8%; P = 0.01), the percentage reporting ncUAI increased between 1998 and 2001 (14.5%, 23.7%; P < 0.001), decreased between 2001 and 2005 (23.7%, 15.6%; P < 0.001), and then leveled off between 2005 and 2008 (15.6%, 15.7%; P = 0.2). However, the percentage of men reporting ncUAI with a main partner increased between 2005 and 2008 for HIV-positive men (2.5%, 8.1%; P < 0.05) and HIV negative men (2.1%, 5.5%; P = 0.06). While the percentage of HIV negative men who reported cUAI with a main partner (i.e., serosorting) increased between 1998 and 2008 (12.4%, 21.1%; P < 0.05), less than half established seroconcordance by testing together.

Conclusions: The patterns of sexual behavior among London's gay men between 1998 and 2008 were dynamic and complex. Our data suggest that HIV risk with a main partner and HIV testing among couples should be given greater priority by health promotion programmes.

Changing patterns of sexual behavior among gay men in London between 1998 and 2008 were dynamic and complex. Human immunodeficiency virus risk with a main partner should be given greater priority by health promotion programmes.

From the *Health Protection Agency, Centre for Infections, London, United Kingdom; and †Department of Public Health, City University, London, United Kingdom.

The authors thank the managers and members of the gyms for their support and participation in the project and all those who distributed and collected questionnaires.

Supported by the Health Protection Agency (2008); Camden and Islington Health Authority and Primary Care Trusts with additional support from the United Kingdom Medical Research Council (grant no. G0 100159) (1998–2005).

Correspondence: Jonathan Elford, PhD, Department of Public Health, City University, 20 Bartholomew Close, London EC1A 7QN, United Kingdom. E-mail: j.elford@city.ac.uk.

Received for publication November 30, 2009, and accepted July 16, 2010.

Since 1996, there has been a steady increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), diagnosed among men who have sex with men (MSM) in the United Kingdom as well as across Europe, Canada, United States, and Australia.1,2 Enhanced surveillance of syphilis, gonorrhoea, and Lymphogranuloma venereum in the United Kingdom has also shown an increase in the percentage of cases diagnosed among HIV-positive MSM, suggesting ongoing high risk behavior among MSM already aware of their HIV-positive status.1,3,4

Engaging in unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) with partners of the same HIV status (serosorting) is an HIV risk reduction strategy adopted by some gay men.5–9 While serosorting can reduce the risk of HIV transmission (providing HIV status is reliably ascertained), there remains the risk of transmitting other STIs. Serosorting explains, at least in part, the increasing number of STIs diagnosed among HIV-positive MSM in recent years.1,10,11 STIs are an important health problem for MSM; they may increase an individual's susceptibility to acquiring HIV infection but also impact upon the infectiousness and disease progression of those who are already HIV-positive.12,13

In the United Kingdom, health promotion campaigns aimed at reducing HIV transmission have traditionally focused on the risks associated with casual sex partners. However, a number of studies suggest that a significant proportion of new HIV infections may be attributable to sex with a main rather than a casual partner.14,15 This raises the question as to whether HIV risk with a main partner should be given greater priority in the United Kingdom.

Behavioral surveillance among gay men allows us to monitor changing patterns of HIV and STI risk behaviors.16,17 In this article, we examine trends in sexual behavior among London gay men between 1998 and 2008, paying particular attention to the type of partner(s) men had sex with and the HIV status of their sexual partner(s).

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METHODS

Data Collection

Gay/bisexual men who use London gyms were surveyed annually between 1998 and 2005 and again in 2008 as part of a behavioral surveillance programme.18,19 Each year men were asked to complete a confidential self-administered questionnaire providing information on social and demographic characteristics, HIV status, self-reported sexual behavior, recreational drug use, and HIV treatment optimism. From 1999, men were asked whether they had participated in previous gym surveys. No financial incentives were offered for taking part. The methods have been described in detail elsewhere.20

Men were asked whether they had had UAI in the previous 3 months and, if so, the type (main or casual) and HIV status of their UAI partner(s). Data were collected about partners in aggregate rather than on a partner-by-partner basis (e.g., UAI in the last 3 months with any casual partner who was HIV-positive).

UAI was classified as either concordant (only with a partner of the same HIV status) or nonconcordant (with a partner of unknown or discordant HIV status). Men reporting both concordant and nonconcordant UAI were assigned to the group of greatest risk for HIV transmission, i.e., nonconcordant UAI. Men were only classified as having concordant UAI if they said they knew the HIV status of their sexual partner was the same as theirs. If they said they assumed their partner's HIV status was the same as theirs they were classified as having UAI with a partner of unknown status (i.e., nonconcordant UAI).

In this analysis, concordant (cUAI) and nonconcordant UAI (ncUAI) are mutually exclusive categories. ncUAI clearly presents a risk for HIV transmission. Concordant UAI (“serosorting”) may not present a risk for HIV, providing both men can accurately ascertain their HIV status, but does present a risk for the transmission of other STIs.10,11 Men who reported UAI only with a main partner were analyzed separately from those who reported UAI with casual partners. Men who reported both a main and casual partner were placed in the “casual partner” category.

From 2000 onwards, men were asked whether they had used the Internet to look for sexual partners in the last 12 months. In addition, in 2008, we asked men who said they knew their UAI partner's HIV status, “How did you know the HIV status of the man (or men) with whom you had anal sex without a condom in the last 3 months?”

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Statistical Analysis

The data were analyzed using the R statistical environment on a Linux platform. Descriptive statistics are presented for all respondents in Tables 1 to 3. To assess the effect of potential confounding factors, both unadjusted odds ratios and adjusted odds ratios for the period 1998 to 2005 were calculated using logistic regression, excluding men who had completed a questionnaire in previous years. Potential confounders included age, being in a relationship, steroid use, HIV treatment optimism, recreational drug use, and seeking sex through the internet.21–23 Marginal differences were seen between unadjusted and adjusted odds ratios, therefore only adjusted odds ratios are shown in Tables 2 and 3 (full data available from authors upon request). Trends between 2005 and 2008 were examined using a Chi Squared test for trend with 2006 and 2007 data imputed through the Amelia bootstrapped multiple imputation algorithm.24 Results are presented for 3 time periods. Phase I, 1998 to 2001; Phase II, 2001 to 2005; Phase III, 2005 to 2008.

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

TABLE 3

TABLE 3

TABLE 3

TABLE 3

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RESULTS

Complete information on HIV status, sexual risk behavior, and potential confounders was provided by 6064 men over the study period (Table 1): HIV-positive 1001 (16.5%), HIV-negative 3866 (63.8%), never-tested 1197 (19.7%) (range, 482–834 per year; estimated response rate, 50%–60%).20 The percentage of men who reported ever having had an HIV test increased from 72.1% in 1998 to 90.1% in 2008 (P < 0.001), with 50.8% (329/648) of gay men in 2008 reporting a HIV test within the previous 12 months. Between 1998 and 2008, median age increased from 35 to 41 years for HIV-positive men (P < 0.001) and from 33 to 37 years for HIV negative men (P < 0.001); there was no such increase for never-tested men (P = 0.31). The percentage of men who said they used the Internet to look for sex increased from 27.2% in 2000 to 59.1% in 2008 (P = 0.01). There was no significant trend over time in recreational drug use, steroid use, HIV treatment optimism, or being in a relationship (Table 1).

After excluding 2780 men who had completed a previous questionnaire, 3287 respondents remained for the independent samples analysis. Detailed analysis of the sexual behavior of those respondents included and excluded from the independent samples analysis showed no systematic differences between the 2 groups (data available from the authors on request).

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Unprotected Anal Intercourse

The overall percentage of gay men who reported engaging in any UAI in the previous 3 months (i.e., nonconcordant or concordant) increased from 24.3% in 1998 to 36.6% in 2008 (P = 0.07; Table 2, Fig. 1). However, this overall increase conceals some important differences in trends for nonconcordant and concordant UAI.

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Overall, the percentage of men who engaged in ncUAI increased significantly between 1998 and 2001 (P < 0.001), followed by a significant decrease between 2001 and 2005 (P < 0.001) and a leveling off between 2005 and 2008 (P = 0.23; Table 2, Fig. 1). In contrast, the percentage of men engaging in concordant UAI (i.e., serosorting) showed a steady increase between 1998 and 2008 (P = 0.01; Table 2, Fig. 1). In 2005, the percentage of men reporting cUAI exceeded the percentage reporting ncUAI for the first time since data collection began in 1998, and has remained higher ever since.

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Nonconcordant Unprotected Anal Intercourse

Although the percentage of men who engaged in ncUAI increased significantly between 1998 and 2001, decreased between 2001 and 2005, and then leveled off (Table 2, Fig. 1), this overall trend conceals some important differences according to the HIV status of the respondent and the type of partner (main or casual; Table 3).

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Casual Partner.

The overall trend in ncUAI has been largely driven by changing patterns of ncUAI with casual partners. The percentage of men reporting ncUAI with a casual partner increased from 6.7% to 15.2% between 1998 and 2001 (P < 0.001), then decreased to 11.6% in 2005 (P < 0.05), falling further to 8.6% in 2008 (P = 0.05; Table 3, Fig. 2A).

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

The increase in ncUAI with a casual partner between 1998 and 2001 was reported among all men irrespective of HIV status (HIV-positive, negative, and never tested; Table 3, Fig. 2B). The decline in the percentage of men reporting ncUAI with a casual partner between 2001 and 2005 was especially notable among HIV-positive men (P < 0.05) and to a lesser extent among HIV negative men (P = 0.09). Between 2005 and 2008, however, ncUAI with a casual partner among HIV-positive (P = 0.9) and never-tested men (P = 0.6) remained stable while the percentage of HIV negative men reporting ncUAI with a casual partner continued to fall (from 10.3% to 5.5%; P < 0.05), reaching the lowest level reported over the 10-year survey period.

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Main Partner.

The percentage of men reporting ncUAI with a main partner alone decreased significantly from 7.8% in 1998 to 3.9% in 2005 (P < 0.05) followed by a significant increase to 7.1% in 2008 (P < 0.05; Table 3, Fig. 2A). Between 2005 and 2008, the percentage of men reporting ncUAI with a main partner increased from 2.5% to 8.1% (P < 0.05) for HIV-positive gay men and from 2.1% to 5.5% (P = 0.06) for HIV negative men (Table 3, Fig. 2C). This is the first time we have recorded an increase in ncUAI with a main partner since data collection began in 1998.

As a result of the decrease in ncUAI with a casual partner and an increase in ncUAI with a main partner, in 2008 there was little difference in the overall percentage of men reporting ncUAI with a main partner alone (7.1%) or with a casual partner (8.6%) (Table 3, Fig. 2A).

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Discordant Versus Status Unknown Partner.

The majority of men who reported ncUAI in 2008 said that this had occurred with a man (or men) of unknown rather than discordant serostatus. In most cases where men did not know the HIV status of their partners, they had assumed it was the same as theirs. Among the 24 HIV-negative men who reported ncUAI with a main partner, only one knew his partner was HIV-positive, whereas the remaining 23 did not know their partners status. On the other hand, among the 12 HIV-positive men reporting ncUAI with a main partner, 6 reported that they knew their partners were HIV-negative.

Concerning casual partners, all 28 HIV-positive men and 23 out of 24 HIV-negative men reporting ncUAI with a casual partner said their partners were of unknown serostatus. Only 1 HIV negative men said he knew his casual ncUAI partner was discordant (i.e., HIV-positive).

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Concordant Unprotected Anal Intercourse—“Serosorting”

Overall, the percentage of men engaging in cUAI increased significantly from 9.8% in 1998 to 20.8% in 2008 (P = 0.01) (Table 2, Fig. 1). However, this increasing trend conceals key differences depending upon the HIV status of the respondent and the type of partner (main or casual; Table 3).

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Casual Partner.

The percentage of HIV-positive men reporting cUAI with a casual partner increased significantly between 1998 and 2005 (6.8%, 17.7%; P < 0.01), and then decreased between 2005 and 2008 (17.7%, 14.2%; P = 0.05). On the other hand, only a small number of HIV negative men reported cUAI (serosorting) with a casual partner throughout the study period with no significant trend between 1998 and 2008 (1.7%, 1.6%; P = 0.9) (Table 3, Fig. 3A).

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

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Main Partner.

The percentage of HIV negative men reporting cUAI with a main partner alone increased significantly from 12.4% in 1998 to 21.1% in 2008 (P < 0.05). HIV-positive men were less likely to report cUAI with a main partner than HIV negative men, but nonetheless, there was also an increasing trend among positive men over time (5.1%, 10.1%; P < 0.05) (Table 3, Fig. 3B).

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Establishing Seroconcordance.

In 2008, of the 135 men who reported cUAI (i.e., serosorting), 127 reported how they knew the HIV status of their partner(s). Among the HIV negative men who reported cUAI, only 7 reported cUAI with a casual partner, whereas 85 reported cUAI with a main partner. Of these 85 men, 53 (62.1%) said they knew their main partner's HIV status through verbal disclosure, while 35 (41.2%) reported HIV testing together. Nearly all the 35 HIV-positive men who serosorted said their partners had told them about their status, but over a quarter (n = 10) also relied on a person's online profile or website.

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DISCUSSION

In this article, we have described trends in UAI between 1998 and 2008 among gay men in London. Overall, the percentage of gay men in our study who engaged in UAI steadily increased between 1998 and 2008, a finding reported in other behavioral surveys in London and elsewhere.25–29 In 2008, over a third of all men reported UAI in the previous 3 months, compared to a quarter in 1998.

The overall trend in UAI masked a more complex picture, which became evident when UAI was classified as concordant (cUAI) or nonconcordant (ncUAI). ncUAI increased rapidly from 1998 to 2001, after which it decreased. By 2008, ncUAI had almost fallen back to the level reported in 1998. By way of comparison, cUAI, or serosorting, has shown an increasing trend among London's gay men since 1998. As a consequence, by 2008, more London gay men in our survey reported cUAI (serosorting) than ncUAI.

We have also found that patterns of ncUAI varied considerably by partner type, with distinctly different trends for casual and main partners. With casual partners, there was an increase in ncUAI between 1998 and 2003, after which it steadily decreased. However, ncUAI with a main partner has shown the opposite trend, initially decreasing up until 2005, and then increasing. This is the first time that we have seen an increase in the percentage of men reporting ncUAI with their main partner since data collection began in 1998. As a result, in 2008, there was little difference between the levels of risk reported with main or casual partners.

Main partners have been implicated in HIV transmission among gay men in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States.14,15,30,31 Our data suggest that main partners may have become an important source of HIV risk among London's gay men, highlighting a key, and as yet, underserved area of health promotion. In addition, we have shown that the majority of men who engaged in ncUAI with their main partner reported not knowing the status of their partner, rather than knowing that they were discordant. This suggests that work may also need to be done around HIV testing within partnerships.

Recent trends in ncUAI varied according to the HIV status of the respondent. The increase in ncUAI with a main partner since 2005 was seen mostly among HIV-positive men, and to a slightly lesser extent among HIV negative men. However, ncUAI with a casual partner remained stable among HIV-positive and never-tested gay men between 2005 and 2008, but decreased among HIV negative men. By 2008, ncUAI with a casual partner reached the lowest level reported among HIV negative men over the 10-year survey period. This is an encouraging trend and is likely to reflect consistent and sustained health promotion campaigns targeting gay men. Similar decreases in ncUAI have been reported among MSM in San Francisco10 and Sydney.32

Over the 10 years of the survey, the overall percentage of men reporting UAI with men of the same HIV status (serosorting) doubled, although this varied according to partner type and HIV status of respondent.

Among HIV negative men serosorting with a casual partner has remained consistently low over the survey period in contrast to trends reported among HIV-negative gay men in Sydney.33,34 This is a reassuring finding and reflects how difficult it is for HIV negative men to reliably establish seroconcordance with casual partners.6 In marked contrast, the percentage of HIV-positive men who reported serosorting with a casual partner increased between 1998 and 2005, but then decreased between 2005 and 2008. Nonetheless, the overall percentage of HIV-positive men who serosort with casual partners remains high (1 in 7 in 2008). An increase in serosorting has also been reported among HIV-positive MSM in Seattle.8

Enhanced surveillance for STIs in the United Kingdom has revealed an increasing proportion of STIs among those already infected with HIV.1 This mirrors the trends in serosorting among HIV-positive men reported here. In 2008, 1 in 7 HIV-positive men in our study reported serosorting with casual partners. It remains to be seen whether the reduction since 2005 in the percentage of HIV-positive men serosorting with casual partners in this study translates into a reduction in new STI diagnoses among this group, or whether STIs will continue to circulate among networks of HIV-positive MSM as has been seen in other European countries.35 It is therefore important that targeted and innovative campaigns continue to highlight the implications of additional STIs in those already infected with HIV.

Serosorting relies on men disclosing their HIV status, and reliably establishing the HIV status of their sexual partners. Men described a variety of mechanisms through which they established the HIV status of their cUAI partners. Most frequently, this involved verbal disclosure, cotesting for HIV and to a lesser extent, the use of online profiles and websites.

Among HIV-negative men, we continued to see a steady increase in the percentage who reported UAI only with a main partner of the same HIV status. However, in 2008, almost two-thirds of HIV negative men who reported concordant UAI with their main partner relied on verbal disclosure to establish seroconcordance and less than half reported testing with their partner for HIV. Verbal disclosure among HIV-negative men is not entirely satisfactory, since it relies on an accurate knowledge of their own HIV status, and will depend on the time since their last test and their subsequent risk behavior. Although an increasing percentage of HIV-negative men reported concordant UAI with a main partner, the mechanism through which many of them establish concordance is unreliable. Rather than serosorting or even seroguessing, many of these men appear to be “sero-hoping.”8 It is therefore crucial that future health promotion campaigns promote HIV testing among couples, both at the outset of the relationship to establish seroconcordance and at intervals during the relationship depending upon the context (monogamous or otherwise).

The majority of HIV-positive men who serosorted relied on verbal disclosure with almost a third also using online profiles and websites, highlighting the importance of the internet as a medium through which HIV-positive men can disclose their status.36 In marked contrast to HIV negative men, however, HIV-positive men can reliably establish concordance through mutual disclosure.

It is encouraging that there has been a steady increase in the percentage of men ever tested for HIV in our study, reaching 90% in 2008. This is likely to reflect the success of universally offering the HIV test in sexual health clinics in Britain. HPA data indicate that uptake of HIV testing among MSM in this setting increased substantially between 2003 and 2008 (Leong, G. Testing offer and uptake among MSM. Health Protection Agency, Centre for Infections, Personal communication, 24 September 2009).

There are a number of limitations to the study. No information is available on trends in receptive and insertive UAI over time, nor did we ask about withdrawal before ejaculation. Furthermore, we did not collect information on the viral load of HIV-positive men which men may use to inform their decisions around risk.

In conclusion, the patterns of sexual behavior among London's gay men between 1998 and 2008 appear to be dynamic and complex. We have seen clear differences in trends in sexual behavior according to the type of partner (casual or main) and the HIV status of the partner (concordant or nonconcordant). These findings throw into sharp focus the importance of differentiating between seroconcordant and nonconcordant partners when tracking trends in UAI, as well as understanding the context in which risk occurs.37 Our study highlights the importance of conducting behavioral surveillance, based on repeat cross-sectional studies in sentinel populations, to monitor trends in risk behavior and partnership patterns over time.16,17

For the first time since we began to survey gay men attending central London gyms, we have seen an increase in HIV risk behavior with a main partner. In addition, although we have seen an encouraging increase over time in the percentage of HIV-negative men who serosort with a main partner, the mechanism by which they establish seroconcordance is often unreliable. These recent trends in sexual behavior among gay men suggest that HIV risk with a main partner and HIV testing among couples should now be given greater priority by health promotion programmes in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

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