Critics of free birth control programs have previously suggested that giving women free contraception will encourage them to engage in more risky sexual behavior. But a new study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology finds that this is not the case.

The researchers, from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, say their findings show that providing women with free birth control does not increase the likelihood that they will have sex with multiple partners.

They used data from the Contraceptive CHOICE Project, which followed 9,256 women in St. Louis whose risks were high for accidental pregnancy.

The women were between the ages of 14 and 45 years old, and 32% had a high school education or less, the researchers note.

The women were provided with free contraception of their choice, which included intrauterine devices, implants, birth control pills, patches and rings. A previous study involving these women showed that providing them with free birth control significantly reduced unintended pregnancies and abortions, the team says.

For this recent study, they wanted to know whether providing the women with free birth control would increase the number of sexual partners they have and recurrence of intercourse during the year after they received the free contraception.

The researchers add that both are indicators of sexual risk behaviors associated with pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

First study author Gina Secura, project director of the CHOICE project, says:

Having multiple partners is a known risk behavior. If sexual behavior were going to change after women received free contraception, you would expect to see that change soon after they got the birth control.”

For the study, the women were surveyed about their sexual behaviors 6 months and 12 months after receiving the free contraception.

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The recent study found that providing women with free contraception does not encourage risky sexual behavior.

The survey included questions about how often they have had sex in the previous 30 days and how many partners were involved. In total, 85% of the women completed both surveys, of which 49% had never had a child and 62% had a previous unintended pregnancy.

Overall, the percentage of women who stated they had multiple partners declined during the study.

While 5.2% reported having sex with more than one male sexual partner at the beginning of the study, only 3.5% reported this at 6 months, and 3.3% reported this at 12 months after receiving free contraception.

Around 70% of the women surveyed reported no change in their number of sexual partners at 12 months, while nearly 14% reported a decrease and 16% reported an increase.

And of the women who did report an increase in their number of partners, over 80% had an increase from no partner to just one.

Senior author Dr. Jeffrey Peipert says:

The notion that women will have sex with more partners if you give them free birth control didn’t pan out in this study. Providing no-cost contraception did not result in riskier sexual behavior.”

Though the study shows an increase in frequency of intercourse – from four episodes at the start of the study to six episodes at the 12-month mark – the researchers note that this increased frequency did not increase incidence of STIs.

“Increasing access to no-cost contraceptives doesn’t translate into riskier sexual behavior. It’s not the contraception that drives their sexual behavior,” Dr. Peipert concludes.

Though the study size was large, one limitation is that it involved self-reported data, which leaves room for the women to falsely report their data.

In early 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested 233 million women will not have access to contraception by 2015.