The researchers categorized motivation and reward into three categories: anonymous experimentation, safe thrills and empowerment, and fun and less inhibition.
Liza Berdychevsky and Heather Gibson - of the Universities of Illinois and Florida respectively - collected data from 853 American women with an average age of 23 years using an online survey.
The study, published in Tourism Management, aimed to assess what and how tourism activities were conducive to sexual risk-taking among women and discover how risky they perceived a range of practices and situations.
These 23 situations included having unprotected sex or having sex under the influence of alcohol, and the researchers discovered that some women may underestimate the risks involved in certain practices.
According to previous research, tourist destinations promote an altered sense of reality among travelers that allows for sexual experimentation and exploration while at the same time downplays perception of risk and consequences.
The current study found that a disconnection with everyday life and social expectations encouraged sexual risk-taking. While vacationing was also associated with wearing revealing clothing and feeling more sexually confident, the main facilitator of risky sex reported by the participants was high alcohol consumption.
For some women, alcohol gave them a "psychological excuse" to move past their normal sexual boundaries and explore experiences they had previously been curious about, as well as providing them with "liquid courage."
Berdychevsky, an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, describes the altered sense of reality created by vacationing further:
"Perhaps in everyday life we are so overscheduled and disciplined that once we find ourselves in a situation where there is no schedule and no social control, and the only time we have to keep in mind is the departure of our plane, it releases us from many of our psychological barriers and inhibitions."
Participants reported being primarily motivated by enjoyment, the opportunity to act fantasies forbidden at home, a sense of being free from negative judgment and anonymity. For some women, however, the risk of certain practices and situations was motivation enough.
Study highlights factors to be addressed by sexual health campaigns
These experiences provided a range of benefits to women, ranging from erotic thrills and bragging rights to a sense of empowerment for those taking part in sexual experimentation.
When analyzing perceptions of risk surrounding various sexual practices and situations, the study found that women who had previously engaged in risky sexual practices while vacationing were less likely to perceive them as dangerous than women who had not had those experiences.
Unprotected penetrative sex was consistently regarded by the participants as involving the highest degree of risk. However, the authors found that some women underestimated the risks involved in nonpenetrative sexual practices and overestimated the protection provided by latex barriers.
The authors believe that shedding light on the aspects of the tourist's experience that facilitate sexual risk-taking, along with the beliefs and motivations that surround such activities, is crucial to the development of effective sexual health education campaigns.
"The fact that women have tendencies to underestimate the risks involved in nonpenetrative sexual activities, overestimate the protection of condoms and attribute sexual risk-taking to alcohol consumption are factors that sexual health information campaigns might want to address," Berdychevsky states.
Gibson, a professor in the Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management, spotted a poster at Sydney airport reminding tourists to practice safe sex. With equivalent posters absent in the US, the researchers believe the US is lagging behind in promoting awareness of the consequences of sexual exploration in some tourist environments.
"Once we agree there's a need for these awareness programs, the challenge will be prioritizing the audiences to be reached and constructing effective messages," states Berdychevsky.
"Identifying women's risk perceptions, motivations and the rewards sought through these behaviors in touristic contexts, as we did in this study, is an important step if we want to try and tailor sexual health education messages to specific demographic groups."
Recently, Medical News Today ran a Spotlight feature on the health risks for travelers on summer vacation.