People are crap at estimating risk. They’re scared of flying, for example, even though it’s far less likely that their metal sky-bird will crash and burn than their car will get crushed by a truck on the way to the airport. Combine that with a tendency to get judgey about sex, and you’ll find attitudes that can have potentially serious effects on public health.

Brian Earp reports on this phenomenon at The Atlantic, examining a recent study led by Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan that looked at how people perceive sexual behavior. Turns out that when people are asked to judge sex-related risks relative to other risky behaviors, they tend to over-inflate risks associated with sex.

From the article:

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Conley and her colleagues think the answer has to do with stigma: Risky behavior related to sex is judged more harshly than comparable (or even objectively worse) health risks, when you control for the relevant differences between the behaviors.

“It seems that as a culture we have decided that sex is something dangerous and to be feared,” Conley told me in an interview. That’s why, she argues, U.S. parents try to “micromanage” their children’s sexuality, “with the danger of STIs [Sexually Transmitted Infections] being a large part of that.”

At the same time, “parents are excited about kids getting their driver’s licenses, and do not regularly forbid their child from driving … they know there are risks but assume the kids must learn to manage those risks.”

Earp points out that the stigma may come from a perception that people can exert control over the way their risky sexual behaviors play out (by using condoms, for example). And it opens a serious question on whether it affects how people behave if they suspect they’ve contracted an STI. Do they do get tested and find out for sure? Or pretend it never happened?

[The Atlantic]

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Top image: Risky Business: Warner Brothers


Contact the author at diane@io9.com.