Sex Ed

People Think Sex Is Riskier Than It Really Is

December 5, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller

There’s a scene in the movie Mean Girls in which high school health teacher Coach Carr gives his students a lesson in sex education. It pretty much consists of him saying: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant…and die!”

As much as I wish I could say Coach Carr’s class bears no resemblance to how we teach kids about sex in the real world, the sad fact of the matter is that the primary message many U.S. educators are sending out about sex is to be afraid. Be very afraid. Unfortunately, it turns out that this approach to sex education is problematic on multiple levels.

By only emphasizing the link that sex has with disease and death, we may be leading people to conclude that sex is a much risker and far more dangerous activity than it really is, especially when compared to other activities. A recent set of studies published in the International Journal of Sexual Health offers some support for this idea.

These studies indicate that we stigmatize persons (regardless of their gender) who unknowingly transmit STIs more than persons who transmit nonsexual infections. Even when the consequences of those nonsexual infections are far worse, people still rate those who transmit STIs as more selfish, reckless, and stupid.

These studies also reveal that we overestimate the risks associated with sexual activity and rate sex as riskier for our health than things that are objectively more dangerous, such as driving. Tellingly, people rated one instance of unprotected sex as 17 times deadlier than taking a long road trip. In reality, people are far more likely to die in a car crash on a long trip than they are to contract a deadly STI from a single sexual encounter.

To the extent that all of this STI stigma has the effect of making people less likely to get tested and/or less likely to discuss/disclose STIs with their partners, there may be very real (and very negative) implications for people’s sexual health.

These results, coupled with the consistent finding that abstinence-based approaches (which often teach students to fear sex) are woefully ineffective, suggest that we would do well to reconsider the way we teach sex education in the U.S. The reality is that comprehensive sex education programs (such as those used in the Netherlands) that emphasize sexual communication instead of “just say no” are far more effective.

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To learn more about this research, see: Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2015). Sexuality-related risks are judged more harshly than comparable health risks. International Journal of Sexual Health, 27(4), 508-521.

Image Source: 123RF/iqoncept

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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