Truck drivers who perceive having moderate or high levels of freedom while on the road are more likely than those who perceive having no more freedom than they do at home to report having had a commercial sex partner in the past six months, according to a Brazilian study.1 Moreover, drivers whose trips average a week or longer are more likely than those whose trips are shorter to have commercial partners. For every additional week spent at home each month, a driver's odds of having had a commercial sex partner in the past six months are reduced by 23%.
In general, mobile individuals have higher rates of STIs, including HIV, than less mobile individuals, in part because being away from home affords mobile workers more opportunities to engage in casual sex. Moreover, without family and social networks to reinforce behavioral norms, mobile workers may feel a greater sense of freedom while on the road. Few studies, however, have attempted to measure the social experience of mobility or to assess the relationship between this experience and sexual risk-taking.
In 2003, researchers interviewed 1,775 male truck drivers who had been systematically recruited at two Brazilian customs stations: one bordering Argentina, the other both Argentina and Paraguay. The participants were asked about demographic characteristics, sexual health and behavior, and exposure to sexual health education. Additionally, participants reported the types of sex partners (principal, commercial and occasional) they had had in the past six months and their total number of partners in the preceding month. Mobility was measured in two ways: by the number of nights spent at home in the previous month and the number of months spent at home in the previous year, and by the typical length of participants' trips (less than a week, 1–2 weeks, 2–4 weeks, more than four weeks or variable length). To measure the truckers' sense of freedom and of being outside of the norms and obligations of conventional social networks, the researchers developed a 10-item scale. Participants were asked to state whether they agreed, partially agreed or disagreed with such statements as "Being a truck driver means I have more freedom to do what I'd like" and "When I am on the road I can do things that I don't do at home"; responses were used to group the truckers into clusters. The researchers conducted logistic and negative binomial regression analyses to assess whether mobility and sense of freedom were associated with having commercial or concurrent partners and with the number of these partners.
Most of the drivers were from Brazil (73%) and were married or cohabiting (87%). Their median age was 40, and they had a median of eight years of education and 15 years' experience as a truck driver. In general, the drivers were on the road more often than they were home: They had spent a median of two months at home in the past year and five nights at home in the past month. Almost half of their trips lasted 1–2 weeks. About one-third of the truckers had had at least one commercial partner in the past six months, and one-quarter had had an occasional partner. Ninety-three percent of truckers who had had commercial partners reported using condoms consistently with those partners; rates of consistent use were lower with occasional (68%) and principal (9%) partners.
The cluster analysis yielded three groups with differing attitudes about behavior while on the road. According to these classifications, 31% of the truckers can and do behave differently while on the road, 42% could but do not behave differently, and 27% cannot and will not behave differently. Truckers in the "can and do" cluster reported the greatest perceived freedom, while those in the "cannot and will not" group felt that being on the road was the same as being home. Truckers in the "could but do not" cluster reported feeling less supervision while on the road than at home, but the levels of freedom they felt during trips fell between those of the other two groups.
These differences in perceived freedom were embodied by participants' sexual behavior. Compared with truckers in the "cannot and will not" cluster, those in the "can and do" and "could but do not" clusters were more likely to report having had a commercial partner (odds ratios, 3.9 and 1.4, respectively) or an occasional partner (2.1 and 1.5, respectively) in the past six months. Similarly, truckers in the "can and do" and "could but do not" clusters were more likely than those in the "cannot and will not" cluster to have had concurrent partners in the past month (3.5 and 2.2, respectively).
The odds of having had a commercial or concurrent partner in the past six months were reduced by 23% and 29%, respectively, for every additional week the drivers spent at home per month. Those whose trips averaged 1–2 weeks, 2–4 weeks or more than four weeks were more likely to report having had a commercial sex partner than were men whose trips averaged less than a week (odds ratios, 1.5, 1.8 and 2.3, respectively). In addition, drivers whose average trip lasted 2–4 weeks or more than four weeks were more likely than those whose trips averaged less than a week to have had concurrent partners (1.6 and 1.8, respectively).
Similar patterns emerged for drivers' number of partners. Among men who had had at least one commercial partner, the average number of these partners declined by 24% for every additional week that the men slept at home per month. Put another way, given that participants averaged eight commercial partners per year, a driver who spent an additional week at home per month would have two fewer commercial partners annually. Unmarried men tended to have a greater number of commercial partners if their average trip lasted more than a week; among married men, only trips longer than four weeks were associated with an increase in commercial partners.
Overall, the findings indicate that both physical travel and the psychosocial aspects of being mobile are associated with increases in commercial and occasional sexual partnerships. Thus, to be effective, preventive programs must "integrate issues surrounding mobility and conditions of travel," the researchers note. They suggest that interventions "encouraging family travel and family context" may "provide a more stable travel environment for truckers and thus reinforce home-based social norms and reduce the liminal effect of travel."—L. Melhado
1. Lippman SA et al., Mobility and its liminal context: exploring sexual partnering among truck drivers crossing the Southern Brazilian border, Social Science & Medicine, 2007, 65(12):2464–2473.