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Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By Jane Weaver Health editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/10/2005 3:47:34 PM ET 2005-10-10T19:47:34

How risky is your sex life?

MSNBC.com and Zogby International asked online readers to share some intimate details about their personal lives, and more than 56,000 adult men and women — one of the largest responses ever to a sex survey in the United States — revealed that many are playing a pretty risky game.

The survey, which was released Monday, found that while a majority of the survey participants consider themselves knowledgeable about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, many are in denial when it comes to sex with someone new.

Just 39 percent of people who took the survey always ask whether a new partner is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or other STDs. Nearly one-third said they never check on a prospective partner's sexual health status, and among those with less than a high school education, almost 50 percent never discuss the issue of STDs with a new partner — troubling statistics given the deadliness of AIDS and rising rates of genital herpes and other diseases.

'Fear of rejection'
Charles Ebel, vice president of health program resources at the American Social Health Association, says the stigma surrounding sexual infections results in many people being too afraid to be straightforward about their sexual history.

"Being able to talk about it is a huge problem," he says. "At the heart of it is the fear of rejection; it’s the fear of being labeled undesirable."

The Zogby/MSNBC.com survey, which was developed with input from noted sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, wasn't intended to be a scientific expose but a snapshot of how well people today are protecting themselves from STDs. The overwhelming response to the lengthy questionnaire indicates just how much curiosity people have about sex and how their sexual practices compare to others.

Responses to the online survey, conducted from Sept. 12 to 16 by Zogby and MSNBC.com, were anonymous. Adults, ages 18 to 70, answered questions about their sexual practices, along with demographic information including age, ethnic background and sexual orientation. Questions ranged from how often they have sex to their knowledge of how certain STDs are spread.

Worried and unaware
If talking about STDs goes hand-in-hand with being better protected, then women have the safety edge over men. An estimated 48 percent of women claim to always check STD status, compared with just 33 percent of men.

African-Americans (44 percent) are more likely to have the conversation than whites or Hispanics (38 percent and 40 percent, respectively).

At least 50 percent of the participants, especially the younger ones, worry about contracting herpes from oral sex. Yet despite anxiety over herpes — which is nonfatal — about 42 percent don't know or aren't even sure of their current partner's HIV status.

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Julius Schachter, editor of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases and a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says people often don't believe their partners are at risk, particularly if a person isn't gay or using intravenous drugs.

"They say, 'I'm sleeping with a guy from the office or someone I met at a bar and he's cute,' " Schachter says.

Men tend to think they would never catch something from a woman, he says.

Overall, adds Schachter, "it's a failure to come to grips."

Researchers weren't surprised that age, education and income influence sexual behavior.

While almost half of those with less than a high school degree never discuss STDs with a new partner, this group also was nine times more likely than college graduates to have paid someone for sex.

"The older you are and the more money you make, the less likely you are to engage in risky sexual behavior," says Fritz Wentzel, a spokesperson for Zogby.

'Sex is alive' in America
Most people who took the survey reported being in long-term monogamous relationships. But far from the stereotype that monogamy means the end of bedroom bliss, sex is a big part of their lives. Over 60 percent reported having sex within the last day or week.

Almost two out of every three couples are having sex at least once a week and a quarter report having sex more than three times a week, the survey found.

"Sex is alive and well in America," says Wentzel. "There are a substantial number of people who are having lots of sex."

In the survey, nearly 25 percent of men and and 13 percent of women reported having more than 25 partners in their lifetimes. Women were slightly more likely than men to have between six and 10 partners.

On the lower end, 34 percent of men and 38 percent of women say they've had one to five partners.

In comparison, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men ages 30 to 44 have had a median of six to eight sexual partners in their lifetimes; women have had about four.

Alcohol and drugs were the biggest risk factors for unprotected sex among both men and women and in every demographic subgroup, with nearly two-thirds of respondents saying they've had unsafe sex while drinking. Asians were the one notable exception, with more than 50 percent of them reporting never having unprotected sex while under the influence of alcohol.

"Alcohol and unprotected sex seem to spiral together," says Wentzel. "Unless you use your head when making these decisions, the more trouble you're going to get into."

MSNBC's Jacqueline Stenson contributed to this report.

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