Passing someone a sexually transmitted infection is viewed as worse than giving them the flu — even if the flu turns out to be fatal, a new study finds. The stigma surrounding STIs can keep people from getting tested, discussing testing with partners or disclosing to partners that they do have an infection, Moor said. She and her colleagues wanted to understand how much stigma really influences people's perceptions of these diseases. To do so, the researchers gathered 1,158 volunteers via the Internet and had each read a short paragraph about someone transmitting either the H1N1 flu, also called swine flu, or chlamydia to another person. Though H1N1 usually causes nothing more than a few days of misery, people with compromised immune systems, the elderly and the very young can die of it.
In every scenario in the study, "Christina" or "James" feels a little ill, but shrugs off the symptoms, goes to a party and has sex with a fellow partygoer. In some cases, this sexual encounter transmits chlamydia to their partner. In other cases, it transmits H1N1. After reading one of these scenarios, each participant answered a series of questions about how selfish, risky and all-around irresponsible they would rate either Christina or James.
Keeping a sexual mode of transmission constant was meant to control for any automatic "sex is taboo" reactions from participants, Moor said. But despite the fact that the characters James and Christina acted sexually identically in all scenarios, chlamydia seemed to strike extra fear into participants' hearts.When Christina or James were said to have transmitted chlamydia, people judged them harshly, ranking them as almost as selfish and risky as was possible in the survey. When H1N1 was the disease in question, however, people rated the transmitter much more generously. Even when the sexual partner actually died of H1N1, transmitting chlamydia was seen as much more risky and irresponsible than transmitting the flu.
"It's quite confusing," Moor said. "If sex is taboo and that's why people are thinking STIs are so stigmatized, we just nipped that in the bud. We're showing that you can get H1N1 through sex, but it's still not stigmatized."
This is something that I have considered for some time, and I am glad it is finally garnering attention in the scientific community. While the findings seem to concur with my feelings on the subject, I do have one criticism to make: They say that it is inexplicable that people view STI's in a harsher light than they do say the flu, even if both are transmitted sexually. They say that they controlled for the "sex is taboo" factor by making sexual activity the mode of transmission in each scenario. However, I think they are missing one crucial point: STI's are linked, in people's minds, with sex, while the flu is not. And this is quite likely directly resultant of the taboo nature of sex in North American culture.