People may disagree about many aspects of sexual behavior. But most agree that doing something that brings harm to self and others is irresponsible and not very smart. How can a sexually active person avoid the risk of doing harm? What sort of chances, if any, should one take?
Risk Go to a word source book and look up risk. What kinds of risk exist in your life today and how would you categorize them? Make a risk chart and discuss them with the class.
Sample Risk Charts
Low: Play cards
Medium: Ride bike to school through traffic
High: Like to inline skate and snowboard
Mental: Fear of school failure
Physical: Sports (fear of injury)
Financial: Loaning someone $20
Consider how you and your friends behave in general when engaging in activities that carry some risk of injury. The abstainers play it safest and they avoid the activity altogether. The cautious take some chances but are careful about it. The reckless throw caution to the wind and plunge in. The same approaches would apply to sexual behavior. However, with sex, abstainers can still be involved in fulfilling intimate relationships, without crossing the line as the cautious and reckless do.
As we discussed earlier in connection with contraception, abstinence is the one absolutely certain way to avoid catching an STD. An equally effective way is to be in a monogamous relationship where two partners, who are free of STDs to begin with, engage in sex with each other only and can be trusted to be true to one another. All other sexual interactions carry some measures of risk of catching an STD.
What Do You Think?
What kinds of jobs involve risk taking on a daily basis? Can you think of some examples?
You can look at behaviors according to the person's desire for taking chances, or his or her risk-taking behavior. Risk refers to the probability, or chance, of loss or injury; the level of risk can vary with the type of activity. Probability is not the same as certainty. If you drive a car at 80 miles per hour, you have a greater chance of getting in an accident than if you drive at 30 miles per hour. On any given occasion, it is possible (though less likely) that the person driving more slowly will get into an accident and the other person will not. However, the longer these two people go on behaving this way, the more likely it is that the odds will catch up with the higher-risk behavior.
What Do You Think?
When you think about it, everything you do carries some element of risk. Think of behaviors as if they are listed on a risk spectrum. At one end are behaviors with virtually no risk. At the other end are those behaviors that are extremely risky. What differentiates high-risk behavior from low-risk behavior? What one element allows you to sort behaviors according to risk?
Risk-taking behavior is closely tied to the costs and benefits of a given activity. The more desirable the activity, the higher the risks people are likely to take. And the higher the costs (negative aspects), the less likely it is that they will take a chance. So the following questions can be asked when deciding whether or not to try a behavior-What is to be gained? What is the cost? What is the risk? Is it worth it?
There are many ways of taking chances in sexual interactions. Two of the most important ones are unwanted pregnancy and STDs. In Activity 9.1 you will explore how these three potential risks have similarities or differences from each other.
Let's now apply the idea of risk taking to sexual behavior with regard to a specific danger. We'll apply the idea of risk taking to the most serious one-AIDS. Figure 9.1 summarizes the more important factors involved in the three basic approaches we discussed above-taking no risks, lower risks, and higher risks.
The “no risk” group is virtually safe from ever getting AIDS. These people either abstain from sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal) or engage in it only with the same partner (with neither of them being infected to begin with). Also, they do not use IV (intravenous) drugs.
Figure 9.1 Levels of risk for AIDS. The shaded area indicates the highest-risk groups.
Figure 9.2 Person B has had sex with persons C, D, E, and F. If person A decides to have sex with B, it will be as if A is having sex with C, D, E, and F as well from a health perspective. If B does not tell A about past sexual contacts, A will not even know that B has been exposed to other sexual partners and is therefore at risk.
The “lower risk” group is at some risk hut less so than the “higher risk” group. These people engage in safer sex by using condoms, are involved only with a few partners, and use no IV drugs.
The “higher risk” group takes bigger chances in one of three ways. They engage in unsafe sex; they have many partners; or they share needles when they use IV drugs. The shaded area in each carries the greatest risk. But the risks within these three groups also vary. Sharing infected needles is usually most dangerous because blood-to-blood transmission of the virus is the most direct.
Another important aspect of the “higher-risk” group is the danger to sex partners. You may not use IV drugs nor have multiple partners yourself, but if you have sex with someone who has had many partners or uses IV drugs, it is as if you were doing these things yourself. Most women in this country who get AIDS do so by having sex with infected bisexual men or drug users. Here is a good reminder to think of. Every time you have sex with someone, you also are indirectly having sex with all of the past and present partners of your partner (Figure 9.2).
As far as STDs are concerned, the only forms of absolutely safe sex are abstinence or engaging in sex with an uninfected partner. But the popular use of the words safe sex today means having sex without the exchange of bodily fluids, typically through the use of condoms. It's more correct to use the words safer sex to avoid giving the impression that such sexual practices are perfectly safe; they are not. But they are safer than unprotected, unsafe sex.
One important rule to remember is that who someone has sex with is more important than what they do. If neither partner is infected, neither person will get infected no matter what they do. But if one partner is infected, then what they do becomes very important.
The safer behaviors include masturbating, caressing, hugging, massage, and dry kissing with a partner. Rather than focusing on intercourse as the “goal” or the ultimate in sexual expression, the concept of “safer sex” has broadened the idea of sexual expression for people, allowing sensuality and intimacy to be more fully explored. One should be aware, however, that getting heavily engaged in such activities has the risk of getting carried away, and it may be difficult to stop short of sexual intercourse.
The second alternative in safer sex is not to exclude sexual behaviors like intercourse but to protect yourself from exposure to bodily fluids, namely semen and vaginal secretions. This basically means using condoms, which stop semen from entering the sexual partner's body and protects the penis from being exposed to infected areas of the body. The use of spermicides (chemical contraceptives that kill sperm) during vaginal intercourse is an added protection (but not a substitute for condom use). The first alternative (avoiding certain sexual activities) is safer than the second alternative (using condoms). It is impossible to say exactly how safe “safer sex” is, in general. Much depends on other factors-who your partner is, how many partners you have, what you do, how often, and so on.
We discussed earlier how drugs and alcohol create high-risk situations leading to coercion or sexual abuse. Drugs and alcohol can also create high-risk situations in terms of sexually transmitted diseases. There are three main reasons to avoid drugs and alcohol in terms of sexual health, although they are not considered a direct cause of sexually transmitted diseases.
- Safer sex and prevention require planning and communication, both of which are impaired by drugs and alcohol. Decision making and judgment are affected by drugs and alcohol.
- Furthermore, alcohol, marijuana, speed, and other drugs may weaken the immune system. Therefore, these drugs can increase a person's vulnerability to STDs. There are no medications that can kill a viral infection, so the immune system is the only way to fight them.
- Lastly, some drugs are taken intravenously, or with a needle. Sharing intravenous needles creates a very high risk of transmitting an STD, particularly AIDS.
Figure 9.1 focuses on AIDS, but it could easily be modified to apply to the other STDs. If you eliminate IV drug users from the “higher risk” category and combine the areas for homosexuals and heterosexuals who have many partners, it will be a good model for any of the STDs other than AIDS.
Would this model also work for sexual coercion? Let us see if you can find out.
Activity 9-1: Risk Taking and Sexual Coercion
Having sex is no game. It is not a matter of who wins or loses. Yet, how many times have you heard the term, he or she scored? Do you know if you are playing by the same rules as your date? Unwittingly, some people become victims of sexual coercion because they did not know that they were in a high-risk situation. Can you recognize high-risk situations? Are you a potential victim?
Step 1 Your teacher will divide the class into three groups and give each group an Activity Report.
Step 2 This activity asks if you can apply the STD model of risk taking to sexual coercion? What makes up no-risk, low-risk, and high-risk behavior? Knowing this information might save you from becoming a victim.
Step 3 Each group will respond to the questions and report their conclusions to the class.
“I really don't know. Maybe it's [sex] right and maybe its wrong but the way I feel, it's too important to be just doing without thinking about.”
-Gloria, in Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff
Walter Dean Myers
Pregnancy and STDs are only some of the dangers facing adolescents. Other problems like alcohol, drugs, and accidents also affect adolescents. All potential risks make adolescence seem like a dangerous period of life. This may be true for many young people, but it need not be for you. Understanding why adolescents are at higher risk for these problems will help you to protect yourself.
Psychologists claim that some of the ways adolescents think and feel make them particularly vulnerable to taking risks, often without realizing that they are doing this. Five tendencies common to adolescence lead to increased vulnerability.
Feeling invulnerable: Most adolescents are quite aware of the dangers to their well being, yet they often feel that although something bad may happen to others, it will not happen to them (“It can't happen to me.”). Until the problem happens to a friend, relative, or someone they know, they are not likely to see its immediate danger to themselves.
Concrete thinking in the present: Adolescents live mostly in the present. They have no problem in perceiving the immediate and concrete consequences of an action, such as when a car hits you and you break a leg. However, adolescents have more trouble thinking about the abstract and future consequences of present behavior. For instance, it is easier for them to avoid touching someone with a rash so as not to get infected and harder to visualize how a virus (which they'll never see) will kill them in 10 years (“Who knows what will happen in the future?”).
Peer pressure: As we have discussed before, adolescents are more likely to do things because of what their friends and peers are doing. They want to be accepted by them as one of them. They also feel there is security in numbers (“If everyone is doing it, then it must be all right.”).
Wrong health beliefs: Adolescents are handicapped by their lack of information about many aspects of pregnancy, STDs (“If I don't have orgasm I won't get infected.”) and other behavior consequences. Adolescents also think of illness as the absence of health, so if they are not feeling sick, they feel they must be well. The idea that they may be the carrier of a virus is hard to accept.
Denial: When faced with unpleasant or threatening situations, people tend to deny the problems they face, or to act as if the problems are not there. Adolescents may be more apt to do this than adults. The person becomes so overwhelmed that he or she cannot cope with it. A girl misses period after period and her abdomen begins to swell; yet she refuses to face the fact of her pregnancy. A boy develops a discharge from his penis yet he goes on believing all is going to be fine (“I am O.K. It will go away.”).
To some extent, all adolescents, indeed adults as well, use these strategies in coping with the problems in their lives. It is only when these approaches are used excessively or uncritically that situations get out of hand.
Write a letter to the editor of your school newspaper about risk taking. What kinds of risks should youth take? What kinds shouldn't they take?
Perhaps adolescents cannot be expected to behave with the caution and foresight of adults. Daring is part of the joy of being young. Yet unless these potential dangers are understood and brought under control, the joy of being young will not last. Enjoying the phase of life you are in, with its problems, is the challenge for all of us, young and old.
Putting Sex in Perspective
Growing up and maturing can help people better understand and make decisions about their sexual behavior. At the right time, with the right person, for the right reasons, sex is a very safe activity, but in practical terms, sex always involves some risks to your health, to your feelings, to your relationships, and to your future. No one can play it entirely safe, but no one needs to play with danger. The experience of sex, its meaning and importance, changes through life. So in each period of life, one needs to put sex in its proper place. Sex does not exist by itself but always in relation to other people or other aspects of one's life. Thus, in order to keep sex in a proper balance with other issues of our lives, we must always keep sex in perspective-what it was, what it is, what it is not, and what it is likely to become. As you progress through life, the significance and importance of sex will change for you. There will be times and situations that sexual relationships will be completely healthy and completely appropriate, other times they will not.
As you make decisions about your sexual behavior now, remember that it is not a closed issue. If you decide not to have sex in a specific relationship, or at this particular time of your life, you are not taking a vow of chastity forever. Instead, you are making a decision based on all current factors in your life. But sexual decision-making is part of an ongoing process, and your concerns and your decisions will change throughout life.
Activity 9-2: Sexuality in the Life of Four Couples
As difficult as it may seem, you are here today because your biological parents had sexual intercourse together. Sometimes young people have the mistaken impression that love and sex were invented for them only and adults who hug, kiss, and show physical affection for each other are acting strange. What should a couple's relationship be like as they grow older? Should sex be a part of it? Should their sexual experience be the same or different from that of younger people?
Step 1 Your teacher will divide the class into small groups and give each group an Activity Report.
Step 2 Each group will consider the sexual relationship of a couple in a specific age group. These broad headings will be considered:
- Define their relationship.
- Should sex be a part of it?
- In what ways is their sexual relationship the same and in what ways different?
- What biological, psychological, social, and moral functions are served?
Role Models Who are your role models? What do they tell you about the following?
- sexual behavior
Choose one role model and write a paragraph about each of the above.
The meaning of sex is different at different times in your life cycle. In childhood, sex takes the form of play or solitary exploration. Through adolescence, a stronger drive develops, and sex may continue to be explored alone, or with a partner. During adolescence, sexuality may be meaningful as a personal discovery process about the body and its drives, it may be meaningful as an expression of strong emotion and affection, it may be meaningful because of social acceptance or rejection, and other reasons. In young adulthood, sexuality becomes an important part of married and other committed relationships. It may be meaningful for the expression of love, for reproduction, or for intimacy. In mid-life or older years, sex still remains a rewarding part of relations and intimacy, but it usually has no reproductive intent or consequence. The meaning of sex and its personal significance to your life changes dramatically throughout your life cycle, and is dependent upon your biological, emotional, and social changes. As discussed previously, the point along this continuum at which you decide to engage in sex or abstain depends upon a wide variety of factors.
How would you assess your risk-taking behavior? Are there some things you do take risks for and others not? How would others assess your risk-taking profile?
Your sexual life is only one part of the many complex, fulfilling, engaging, productive aspects of your life. Sex is an important part of life for most people, but it should be kept in perspective.
- What questions might you ask yourself when assessing the potential risk of a behavior?
- To what two general concepts does the term safer sex refer?
- Name three ways in which drugs and alcohol affect sexual health.
- What five factors make adolescents particularly vulnerable to high-risk behavior and its consequences?
- Identify the possible stages in a person's sexual life. What is the purpose and meaning of sexual behavior in these various stages of life?
- Young adulthood
- Older years