Risky Sex Is Judged More Harshly Than Objectively More Lethal Non-Sexual Risks

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Which decision is more lethal?:

  • Deciding to drive from Detroit to Chicago
  • Having sex without a condom with a person whose HIV status is unknown

If you’re anything like most people, you will say that the second scenario is the riskier one. That risky sex poses more danger to you than a simple car trip from Detroit to Chicago.

And you’d be wrong.

In a study conducted by Conley, Moors, Matsick, and Ziegler, participants thought that someone was approximately 17 times more likely to die as a result of contracting HIV through random sex than they would die in a car accident driving from Motown to Chi-Town.

In reality, the opposite is true. And someone is about 20 times more likely to die in a car accident on a trip of 300 miles than they are to die as a result of unprotected sex.

Not only that but the team also found that individuals who take sexual health risks are judged more harshly than those who take other health-related risks. Specifically the team presented subjects with several vignettes describing someone who transmitted either swine flu (i.e., a disease that isn’t sexually transmitted) or chlamydia (a disease that is), with vignettes ranging in severity of disease outcome — mild, moderate, or severe.

They were then asked to rate the person transmitting the illness in the stories.

Strikingly, the study found that vignette characters who transmitted chlamydia with only mild health outcome were judged more harshly than characters who transmitted swine flu with severe health consequences.

Finally, the team noted that while public health sites were full of admonishments for individuals on abstaining from sex as a way to reduce their risk of contracting STIs, no such advice was rendered on public driving websites that one should limit one’s exposure to that risk — despite the fact that driving is an objectively riskier activity and a greater threat to public health than unprotected sex.

Obviously, it’s good to mitigate one’s sexual health risk (and something I personally strive for). But the stigma associated with it as opposed to other comparable (or greater) objective health risks truly is staggering.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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