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6 November 2006
Social Expectations Frustrating Safe Sex Message
by George Atkinson

Appearing in the journal The Lancet, a review of sexual behaviors around the world contains a number of unexpected findings. Perhaps most surprising, in an age in which scare-stories about underage sex and promiscuity abound, there has in fact been no universal trend towards earlier sexual intercourse.

Another unanticipated finding is that it is the developed nations that report comparatively high rates of multiple partnerships, not those parts of the world which tend to have higher rates of HIV and AIDS, such as African and Asian countries. This has prompted the researchers to suggest that social factors such as poverty and gender equality may be a stronger factor in sexual ill-health than promiscuity.

Perhaps the most worrying aspects of the report were the findings regarding condom usage amongst young people. The study reveals how, in countries around the world, social expectations of how men and women should behave continually frustrate health authorities' efforts to encourage safer sex.

The researchers cited how young women often feel their reputation will be sullied if they carry condoms; and how young men often feel pressured into having sex when they get the opportunity - whether they have a condom or not. Additionally, young people in all countries find it hard to even discuss the possibility of sex with potential partners, which makes it difficult to plan condom use.

Lamentably, the findings showed that there was a tendency amongst young people to try and guess the HIV status of potential partners using unreliable indicators such as an individual's appearance, or how well they are known to them.

The review showed why many campaigns to encourage safer sex had failed, according to lead researcher, Dr. Cicely Marston. "Our findings help to explain why many HIV programs have not been effective," she said. "Giving out condoms and information is vital, but it is not enough. Even where young people know about the importance of condoms, social factors - in particular stereotypes about how men and women should behave and a reluctance to talk openly about sex - hamper their use. Safer sex campaigns need to tackle these issues if they are to succeed."

Dr. Marston called for greater efforts to address the links between sexual behavior and poverty, gender inequalities and social attitudes to improve sexual health. Changes to the social context surrounding sexual behaviors were vital to achieve this, she concluded.

Related Articles
Many Teenagers Clueless About Condoms, Survey Finds
No-Sex Pledges Linked To High-Risk Sexual Behavior

Based on material from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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