Twitter Facebook Instagram Google+ Tumblr YouTube E-Mail WhatsApp Sign In Check Close snapchat
Search
Exit Clear
Hard Science Hard Science

People Think Sex is Deadlier Than Driving, and That’s a Problem

People Think Sex is Deadlier Than Driving, and That’s a Problem: © Josef Lindau / Corbis

© Josef Lindau / Corbis

Imagine a guy who unknowingly gives chlamydia to his girlfriend. Let’s say it’s a very mild infection, and she is completely cured after taking a week’s worth of antibiotics.

Now imagine a guy who unknowingly gives his girlfriend the flu during sex. Let’s say it’s a very serious case, and she dies as a result of the infection.

Which man do you think would be judged more harshly by society?

According to a new study led by Dr. Terri Conley of the University of Michigan and published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, people view the guy who transmitted chlamydia more negatively overall, rating him as the more selfish, dumb and reckless of the two.

Reversing the genders in these scenarios doesn’t matter either. Whether it is a man giving the infection to a woman or vice versa, STI transmitters are seen as worse people than those who pass on nonsexual infections, even when those nonsexual infections have devastating consequences. Why is that?

As Dr. Conley argues in this paper, STIs and the people who transmit them are unfairly stigmatized by society, owing to sex education efforts that focus heavily on STI reduction. Such efforts, she and colleagues claim, have led to “a stigmatization of STIs beyond their degree of severity (i.e., relative to other diseases) and an interpretation of sexual activity as unduly risky (i.e., relative to other risky activities).”

In other words, we may have unintentionally taught people to see sex as riskier than it really is—and to be irrationally afraid of STIs.

To provide further evidence for this idea, the authors ran another study involving nearly 700 participants who were asked one of the following two questions:

If 1,000 people took a 300-mile road trip from Detroit to Chicago, how many would be expected to die as the result of a car crash on the way?

If 1,000 people had a single act of unprotected sex yesterday, how many would be expected to die as a result of contracting HIV from this sexual encounter?

Participants thought more people would die from sex compared to car crashes. A lot more.

Specifically, the average number of deaths from car crashes was estimated to be 4 out of 1,000 (or less than one-half of one percent). By contrast, the average estimated number of deaths from contracting HIV through a single sexual encounter was 72 out of 1,000 (or about 7 percent).

That means people rated unprotected sex as 17 times deadlier than driving a car.

As the authors of this research point out, these estimates couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, participants dramatically overestimated both risks. The real kicker, though, is that people are actually 20 times more likely to die while taking a 300-mile road trip than they are to die from contracting HIV through a single act of condomless sex.

In light of the substantially greater risk associated with driving, Dr. Conley argues that it is rather odd for us to spend so much time preaching abstinence from sex in order to prevent the spread of STIs but never to argue for abstinence from driving in order to prevent injury and death from automobile accidents.

Some of you may have reached this point wondering what’s so bad about stigmatizing STIs. In fact, I’m sure some of you would argue that stigmatizing STIs could potentially be a good thing in the sense that it might decrease the frequency with which people have unprotected sex.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that stigmatizing a behavior doesn’t necessarily reduce it. For instance, the more that people experience and internalize obesity stigma, the less likely they are to diet and lose weight.

Dr. Conley suggests that all of the stigma we’ve created around STIs may be similarly counterproductive in the sense that fear of becoming stigmatized could potentially discourage people from getting tested for STIs in the first place and sharing their status with partners.

While sex might not be as risky as we think it is, there are still risks associated with it, and we shouldn’t abandon safer-sex practices. So, keep using condoms and keep getting tested. However, we might do well to reconsider whether STIs deserve the massive stigma we heap upon them.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


More From Hard Science See all Hard Science

Playboy Social

Never miss an issue. Subscribe and save today!

Loading...