Emotional dysregulation and risky sex among incarcerated women with a history of interpersonal violence
Incarcerated women, in comparison to non-incarcerated women, are at high risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and many have experienced interpersonal violence. The psychological construct of emotional dysregulation – which includes heightened intensity of emotions, poor understanding of emotions, negative reactivity to emotion state, inability to control behaviors when experiencing emotional distress, and maladaptive emotion management responses – is a possible pathway to explain the link between interpersonal violence exposure and STI risk. The present study examined maladaptive emotion management responses for emotional dysregulation (i.e., avoidance and numbing, and dissociation) occurring in the context of risky sexual behavior. We collected qualitative data from 4 focus groups with a sample of n=21 incarcerated women (18+ years) from facilities in urban New England. Qualitative data were analyzed using a thematic analysis approach. Findings indicated that incarcerated women reported engaging in a variety of maladaptive responses for emotion management during sexual encounters. These maladaptive responses for emotion management appear to increase sexual risk behaviors and alter women's ability to implement STI protective behaviors such as sexual negotiation and condom use. Preventive interventions to reduce sexual risk behaviors should incorporate strategies to promote emotional regulation among incarcerated women with histories of interpersonal violence.