“We all tend to envision decision-making as logical calculations of pros and cons, but much of the time it’s not actually like that at all; the way we tend to make decisions is very messy. People talk about ‘going with their gut’ on a decision, but what influences the decisions your gut makes?” 

From enjoying a romantic dinner with someone special to feeling the need to connect with another human, there are a number of factors that impact decisions about sexual risk-taking behaviour. “Decision-making–related sexual behaviour can be swayed by our beliefs about risk, but also by how much we like the person we’re with, and how turned on we feel,” explains CTN postdoc Dr. Shayna Skakoon-Sparling. As a graduate, a lot of Dr. Skakoon-Sparling’s work focused on how sexual arousal and psychosocial factors, like motivation to pursue romantic relationships, influence decision-making and sexual risk-taking. During her fellowship with CTN, she will continue with this theme, investigating how loneliness might impact decision-making around sexual behaviours among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM).

“Loneliness is more than just the experience of solitude; it’s based on the emotional experience of isolation. Almost all of us have a strong need to belong; to have positive, long-lasting relationships with important people in our lives. We feel lonely when this need isn’t met, or isn’t met well,” says Dr. Skakoon-Sparling. MSM can be particularly vulnerable to loneliness, which may lead to some men seeking intimacy whatever the cost. This could help explain why recreational drug use, hypersexuality, and HIV transmission are more commonly associated with MSM.

Dr. Skakoon-Sparling aims to gain a more thorough understanding of how loneliness impacts MSM and how MSM cope with their feelings of loneliness. “In particular, I’m interested in exploring whether there is a difference in HIV risk between guys who are emotionally lonely (longing for a close relationship partner) and those who are socially lonely (longing for a larger social network),” she clarifies. “My ultimate goal is to develop an intervention that helps guys manage their loneliness in ways that are productive (make a lasting difference in their experience of loneliness) and do not elevate their risk for HIV transmission.”

So what does the future hold for Dr. Skakoon-Sparling? She is confident that she will work in this field of research for a long time: “I would like to be able to continue my work looking at the psycho-social factors that underlie our decisions about sexual behaviour and continue to explore how we can use this information to help people have sex lives that are emotionally fulfilling, while also looking after their physiological health.”

Want to keep up to date with Dr. Skakoon-Sparling’s work? Visit her website

Written By:

Hannah Branch

Ms. Hannah Branch joined the communications department in the fall of 2019. She holds a degree in Human Biology from the University of Birmingham and has over eight years’ experience working in science and health. Starting her career as commissioning editor of two medical journals, Hannah has since worked in other medical communications and PR roles, developing training materials and campaigns across a variety of health care areas.