Denton: Sex and Responsibility
By Richard Denton, Guest Columnist
Published on Thursday, October 18, 2012
My wife was recently walking in Hanover behind several Dartmouth students who were bragging about the sexually transmitted diseases they had collected.
We are in the midst of an STD epidemic. Stanford University’s Sexual Health Peer Resource Center estimates that approximately one in four college students has an STD. On average, one out of two sexually active American youth will contract an STD by the age of 25. STDs can lead to genital warts and blisters, sterility and even death, and some of these diseases are incurable. A recent article in the Valley News described a surge in throat cancer correlated with oral sex.
A common sense public health approach to preventing transmission of STDs includes three components — abstinence, being faithful to a monogamous partner and condoms. Along with condoms, we could include vaccines and testing for those who are going to be sexually active. This “ABC” approach has been used successfully in Uganda to help stem the rise of AIDS, with a decrease in the percentage of HIV-positive people from about 15 percent to 5 percent.
The situation for which most students should aim is permanent monogamy — that is, having a single, lifelong sexual partner. We might as well call that marriage. If two people can reach this situation without disease, they will remain without disease. Research by economics professor David Blanchflower also shows that having a single sexual partner is, for most people, the happiest state, and that for the sake of increasing happiness, the “economic monetary equivalent” value of a happy marriage is very large.
If unmarried students are involved in sexual relationships, they ought to be using condoms. There are several problems, however, with depending on condoms. Many students do not use them correctly or consistently. This is especially likely if students are involved in sexual activity after drinking alcohol. But even if condoms are correctly used, they don’t always protect one from getting an STD. Even neglecting the fact that they are not 100 percent reliable, some diseases can be transmitted through non-genital skin contact.
The way to be safe from STDs is to not have sex, or if one does, only with one partner who has also not had sex with anyone else. This latter part of the equation is the faithfulness aspect of ABC. Research by anthropologist Edward Green and other researchers suggests that this aspect of ABC played a large role in the reduction of AIDS in Uganda.
Reducing the number of sexual partners can significantly decrease the probability of contracting an STD. Having just one sexual partner at one time is far better than having multiple partners. In some cases, students might actually consider marriage. There are some couples that are effectively married and might as well be. But many students are not ready for such a commitment, and most one-partner sexual relationships eventually dissolve. So having one partner at a time often leads to sexual contact with a number of people.
One procedure that could help to reduce the transmission of disease would be for couples to commit at least temporarily to a sexual relationship only with each other, both get tested for disease before they begin their sexual relationship and then end their relationship if they decide to have sex with other partners. But even assuming your partner plays by the rules, this strategy is not foolproof because the tests are not 100 percent reliable, and some STDs become undetectable during certain stages. Additionally, there are not medical tests for every kind of STD, so there may not be any way for people to know if they have one or are carriers unless they begin to show symptoms.
So far, I’ve stressed the physical consequences of sex, but there is an emotional cost from giving oneself intimately and breaking up. Sex is a powerful bonding experience. It hurts to break up, and breaking up multiple times can make it difficult to trust and bond. A number of people have described it this way: Having sex is like putting a piece of duct tape on your skin. It hurts when you take it off, and the more times you stick it on, the less well it stays on. Other possible consequences are worry, regret, guilt and loss of self-esteem. As Lesley Garner says in her 2007 book “Everything I’ve Ever Learned about Love,” there is no condom for the heart. Casual sex trivializes what is meant to be a deeply spiritual experience.
Abstinence is the best way for unmarried students to avoid the spiritual, emotional and physical problems associated with sex. The modern assumption seems to be that students are animals that cannot control their behavior — they must have sex. That assumption is not true. Students do have the potential to make responsible decisions. For men, it is difficult, though not impossible, not to have any overt sexual release. But from a spiritual, emotional and physical perspective, masturbation is a far better choice than having sexual relationships with other people.
Even delaying sexual activity can be beneficial for women because they are significantly more susceptible to disease when the cervix is not fully developed. The College has done a good job communicating the value of using condoms. But a comprehensive strategy should also emphasize the value of monogamy (one lifetime sexual partner) and for those who are not ready to get married, abstinence. There is no safe sex apart from these last two choices.
Many students believe that virtually all students are hooking up, but that is not the case. A national survey of college students suggests that 32 percent of college students have not had sex with any partners during the previous year, and 38 percent have had sex with only one partner during the previous year. So students should realize that they are not alone if they choose for good reasons to limit their sexual activity.
Every one of you, no matter how many sexual experiences you’ve had, has the potential to make changes in your lifestyle. Why not make changes that are likely to lead to long-term health and happiness? How about considering delaying, limiting or even refraining from sex and aiming for a lifelong relationship that has the potential to contribute toward genuine happiness?
Richard Denton is a physics professor.