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Stigmatizing of Sexuality: Are We Afraid of Sex?

Stigmatizing of Sexuality: Are We Afraid of Sex?

Consider two cases. One thousand people have unprotected sex and could contract HIV. Another thousand people drive 300 miles from Detroit to Chicago, and risk getting into a traffic accident. Who do you think is more likely to die?

It does not matter what your answer is because you probably do not know how large is the gap between this two cases. And it is, actually, very, very big. According to a new study led by Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan, the average guess for the car-crash plot was about four people per thousand compared with nearly 71 deaths per thousand from the HIV contracted after unprotected sex. These terrible results could mean that you are roughly seventeen times more likely to die from a single unprotected sexual experience than from a car accident on a faraway trip.

But the real statistics show the opposite. The statistics from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention show that people are twenty times more likely to die from a car crash than from HIV. So, here we see how far we were in our estimates.

Safe Sex

Terri Conley and his colleagues who discovered this phenomenon believe that the roots of this bias lie the stigmatization of sexual behavior in the modern society. According to the scientists, risky behavior related to sex is judged more harshly than comparable health risks. Conley says that public approach to sex is quite weird: people tend to think that sex is something dangerous and is to be feared. In the U.S., parents try to protect their children from sex because of the danger of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and at the same time they do not always ponder about risky driving behaviors of their offspring. Mr. Conley thinks that these approaches must be corrected according to evidence.

The idea that sex-related risks are more stigmatized than any other types of risks was verified by Mr. Conley. He and his colleagues decided to carry out an experiment: they gave a collection from twelve vignettes to examinees. Every vignette told the same story about someone who transmits to his partner one of two diseases—either chlamydia or H1N1—through casual sexual act, but he did not know that he had something to transmit. Chlamydia is a common STI rarely causing serious health problems. H1N1 is commonly known as the swine flu and can damage your health or even kill you.

The difference between vignettes was only in the severity of the outcome caused by the diseases. A “mild” outcome meant that you were sick enough to have to see your doctor, but at worst you would have to take some medicine for a week. A “moderate” outcome meant that you had to go to the emergency room first. A “serious” one was getting hospitalized. And “fatal” outcome, as you guessed, was dying.

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And the result was shocking: participants judge a transporter of chlamydia more harshly than a transporter of the swine flu, even despite the fact that in last case people die more often. Mr. Conley came to the conclusion that the possible explanation of this phenomenon calls “unjustified stigma about STIs”.

The line of people’s thoughts is approximately as follows: people who have chlamydia should have had some prior unsafe sexual behavior, and if they transmitted the disease to others, it happened because of their irresponsible behavior. There are probably two explanations of this way of thinking. First of all, people are just insufficiently aware of diseases and ways of their transmission. And secondly, the stigma surrounding the STIs does not reduce the number of cases of infection. It is rather more likely to be associated with poorer sexual-health outcomes.

Not only Mr. Conley believes that the stigma on sexual behavior needs to be drastically reduced. There are too many risks associated with it. A sick person will be less likely to seek medical advice or to start a relationship.

The idea of stigmatizing a behavior sometimes works, often it does not. For example, the number of overweight people cannot be reduced by society condemning this behavior. On the other hand, stigmatizing some behaviors, like smoking, actually works. Therefore, the key question is whether the situation with sexual behavior is more akin to overeating or smoking?

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