Surely, you're aware that having unprotected sex has risks, but how does it compare to other dangerous activities? A study at University of Michigan by Terry A Conley asked participants to imagine a thousand people having a single unprotected sexual encounter and a different thousand driving for 300 miles, and then assess the risks. Participants thought about 71 of those who had unprotected sex once would contract HIV and eventually die and, out of those driving, estimated found would die in a car crash. Which is wrong. Like really, really wrong. You're actually about 20 times more likely to die from the car crash than from the single unprotected sexual encounter— but we perceive sex as way, way riskier.
Not only do we view sex itself as riskier, we view the consequences associated with sex more harshly than other unfortunate outcomes. Conley "designed a test that would compare 'apples to apples'—two cases where a health threat was transmitted through sex, but only one of which was an actual STI". During one exercise, people were given stories where either a person unknowingly transmitted chlamydia or unknowingly transmitted swine-flu, with results ranging from mild symptom to death, and then judged the person who had unknowingly transferred it. The result? According to The Atlantic, people "who read the story about someone unknowingly transmitting chlamydia—with a 'mild' outcome—judged that person more harshly than participants who read about the swine-flu case where the other person actually died!"
Not only is that bizarre logic, it has some really bad real-world consequences. The way we stigmatize STIs can easily have negative health effects— such as people avoiding treatment or avoiding telling their partners due to the stigma attached, Conley warns.
It's important that we have a realistic view of STIs, with an honest look at the consequences of risky behavior without stigmatizing or moralizing. Here's what else we know about perceptions of sexual health and behavior:
1. We're Not Honest Enough About STIs
You know how I said stigmatization has negative health consequence? Well a British survey this year said that two thirds of people would lie about having an STI to their partner. How much shame must there be if we would lie to people who we care about and people who it could affect directly?
2. Open Relationships Can Be Safer Relationships
I know I'm banging on about honesty, but it's really important. And research had shown the open relationships actually have the same or lower STI rates despite multiple partners. The reason? There's more communication about sexual behaviors, and people are less likely to hide their STIs as an attempt to hide their infidelity.
3. It's About Balance
While on one hand we need to realistically assess the risks of STIs without overestimating or stigmatizing, we also can't deny the potential risks. An outbreak of chlamydia at a Texas school that teaches abstinence-only was widely regarded as a consequence of a lack of education about STIs.
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