05/10/2012 03:50 pm ET

Women's Exposure To Violence Linked To Risky Sex, Study Finds

Women who have experienced violence are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, according to a new study published in the journal Psychology of Violence.

Researcher from the Miriam Hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine found that women who've been through difficult experiences -- from witnessing neighborhood crimes to being abused themselves -- are more likely to have unprotected sex and a high number of sexual partners.

"Sadly, our results show that many women must cope with multiple forms of violence, and that some combinations of violent experiences put women at risk for HIV, other STDs or unplanned pregnancy – not to mention the risks from the violence itself," lead author Jennifer Walsh said in a press release announcing the results of the study.

Previous research has found a correlation between exposure to violence and risky behavior among women.

In 2000, for example, researchers from the University of California at San Francisco found that women with history of exposure to violence were more likely to abuse drugs and become infected with HIV either through intravenous drugs use or unprotected sex.

A study published last month found that the exposure of low-income black adolescent girls to different kinds of violence -- including physical intimidation, violence from a partner, or violence in their community -- was linked to inconsistent condom use and their number of sexual partners.

"These findings put sexual risk in the context of broad traumatic experiences, and they suggest that the type and characteristics of violence exposure matter in terms of sexual health outcomes," the authors concluded.

For this latest study, the researchers looked at the past violent experiences -- and present sexual activities -- of 481 low-income women at an urban STD clinic and came to similar conclusions. The women who'd been exposed to multiple forms of violence, and to violence in the community, had the highest levels of risky sexual behavior. Not only did they have a higher number of sexual partners but they were more prone to using alcohol and drugs before sex. The researchers also found that the different types of violence the women experienced were interrelated: Women who experienced one type were more likely to have experienced others.

The good news, according to Walsh, is that the research findings give clinicians another reason to get a more complete picture of a woman's history of violence: If they hear about one instance in her past, this could prompt them to ask about others.

"Given the ties between multiple violent experiences and sexual risk-taking, clinicians working with women who experience violence or who are at risk for HIV/STDs may need to consider the overlap between the two in order to impact sexual health consequences," Walsh said in the release.