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Video: Dr. Ruth on ‘risky sex’

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Special to msnbc.com
updated 10/11/2005 11:01:43 AM ET 2005-10-11T15:01:43

I want to begin by thanking everyone, all 56,809 of you, who took part in our risky sex survey . No matter what your answers were, I’m sure you learned something just by taking this poll and that’s what is most important: that we all have as much knowledge about sex, and the risks that come with it, as possible.

When I first began on the radio in 1980, I talked about sexual illiteracy. Since I was dealing with people who had problems with sexual functioning, I was really talking about people’s lack of knowledge when it came to how to best enjoy sex.

Yes, I mentioned sexually transmitted diseases and protecting oneself from an unintended pregnancy, but at that time, the consequences weren’t as severe. Only a year or so later, AIDS became front-page news, and that compounded the risks of sexual illiteracy.

No longer was it just sexual fulfillment that was at risk, but the very lives of those in my listening audience. But just because some behaviors are risky doesn’t necessarily make people abandon them. The lure of sex, in particular, is very strong. And combine that with an ingredient that lowers inhibition, like alcohol or drugs, and the likelihood of people engaging in risky sex increases dramatically, as this poll shows.

Given that we know that sexually transmitted diseases are rampant in our society, looking at the results of this poll might lead you to conclude that matters aren’t as bad as they might seem.

One might even find these results to be a hopeful sign. But then you have to look at them in light of some factors that are particular to this survey.

Problem may be even worse
Those who took this poll are not completely typical because they all have access to a computer. If you take some of the trends shown in the survey, with regard to education and income, and adjusted them for the likelihood that people with less education and income are less likely to have access to a computer, you can easily see that the problems with risky sex are more prevalent in this country than this poll shows, and so remain serious.

Another factor one should look at when analyzing this data is that the people who took this poll have a natural curiosity about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, which is why they were drawn to take the survey, and can easily get information about sex online, since we know they have access to a computer.

So in general, whatever their actual level of education, you have to assume this entire group knows more about risky sex than the general population. So again, this points to the problems of risky sex being greater than what we see from these results.

And, of course, if you re-examine these statistics in light of the type of person who took the poll (i.e. people who are better informed than average), we note that even among this group, risky sex is a serious issue, meaning that anyone who was not worried before they saw this poll should certainly be worried now.

But being worried isn’t enough. You can’t scare people into stopping themselves from engaging in risky behavior. The only viable solution is to educate them so that they can lower the risks or, in other words, make them sexually literate.

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This has worked to some degree. Condom usage is way up among teens, and unintended pregnancies are down. What these statistics say is that if instead of telling people not to take a particular risk we educate them in ways of engaging in that behavior but making it less risky (e.g. by using condoms and making sure their partners have been tested for STDs), we can have a positive effect at reducing overall risk.

But while condom use is up, one quite disturbing statistic revealed by this survey is that 31 percent of the people who responded never discuss HIV status with a potential partner. As I said, as a whole, this group is better informed than most. So why aren’t more of them having this type of discussion?

I admit it’s not an easy discussion to have. The wrong answer could end any chance of a relationship forming. And getting tested isn’t fun either. And if both parties are very aroused, they might not want to be bothered with the truth. But I can guarantee you that if they do catch a disease of some sort they’ll regret that lack of responsibility. The easier path will turn out to have been the one that involved talking about STDs.

Another good reason for 'The Talk'
Let me end on an encouraging word about these discussions. I wrote a book about herpes, and what many people reported to me was that there is a silver lining to having such a talk.

Let’s say you have an STD and you tell a potential partner and they decide to never call you again, what does that say about their character? Is that the type of person you really want to be dating in the first place? Probably not, and so having "The Talk" ends up screening not only for disease, but for personality traits that you’d prefer not discovering several months later.

So the one conclusion I want you to draw when reading the results of our Risky Sex survey is that there is danger lurking out there in the dating scene and you must protect yourself.

Risky sex is just that, risky, and you must be prepared before you find yourself in a situation in which you just might throw caution to the wind. You must have "The Talk" about STDs sooner rather than later, and you must have a condom available, at the very least.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a psychosexual therapist who helped pioneer the field of media psychology in 1980 with her long-running, call-in radio show. She has been featured in numerous television programs, writes a syndicated newspaper column, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” and is the author of 31 books. Currently she is an adjunct professor at New York University and an associate fellow of Calhoun College at Yale University.

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