Background: Key strategies advocated for lowering personal risk of sexual exposure to STD/HIV include having fewer partners and avoiding risky partners. However, few studies have systematically examined how well people can actually discern their sex partners' risk behaviours.
Methods: We conducted face to face interviews with 151 heterosexual patients with gonorrhoea or chlamydial infection and 189 of their sex partners. Interviews examined the patients' perceptions of their sex partners' sociodemographic characteristics and risk behaviours. Patients' perceptions of partners were then sociometrically compared for agreement with partner self reports, using the kappa statistic for discrete variables and concordance correlation for continuous variables.
Results: Agreement was highest for perceived partner age, race/ethnicity, and duration of sexual partnership; and lowest for knowledge of partner's work in commercial sex, number of other sex partners, and for perceived quality of communication within the partnership. Index patients commonly underestimated or overestimated partners' risk characteristics. Reported condom use was infrequent and inconsistent within partnerships.
Conclusion: Among people with gonorrhoea or chlamydial infection, patients' perceptions of partners' risk behaviours often disagreed with the partners' self reports. Formative research should guide development and evaluation of interventions to enhance sexual health communication within partnerships and within social networks, as a potential harm reduction strategy to foster healthier partnerships.