Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: Virtual STDs, Colorado’s State Sex Ed Program, and Trademarking Vibrators

Martha Kempner

In this week's sexual health roundup: researchers create an online model of a simple STD epidemic to see why and when people protect themselves; lawmakers in Colorado propose strengthening that's state's sex education law; and a sex toy manufacturer loses its bid for trademark rights. 

New Game Helps Researchers See How People React in an Epidemic

Human behavior is often a mystery to public health experts who have spent years trying to figure out what motivates people to protect their own health whether it is by getting flu shots, seeking health care, or using a condom. There has been a lot of research and mathematical modeling conducted to answer these questions but there are ethical limitations on what can and can’t be studied. You can’t release a disease into a population just to find out how people will react. You can’t make flu shots easily available and cheap for one group and make another group jump through hoops and pay more to see the effects of barriers. And you can’t deliberately spread misinformation about condoms to one group and good information to another just to see if it makes a difference. That is you can’t in real life—but in a virtual reality, why not. 

So economists at Wake Forest University in South Carolina created a new reality in the form of a multi-player video game. The game simulated a simple disease model such as Chlamydia or gonorrhea because getting one of these diseases does not kill you but it also does not give you immunity from getting it again in the future. Researchers then recruited 102 people to play the game over 45 days. Players earned points for staying healthy and those points were turned into cash on an Amazon gift care at the end of the research period.

Researchers emailed players each day and told them whether they were sick or not and what their chances of getting sick were that day. Sick players could do nothing for a day which means they could not earn any points. Healthy players could choose either to buy protection for the day or to take their chances unprotected.

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Researchers then studied their behavior and tried to figure out what motivated players to protect themselves. They found that players’ behaviors related to how much it cost to protect themselves, how prevalent the disease was, and what they experienced early in the epidemic. For example, players who became infected early on were more likely to use protection later than those who hadn’t been infected despite the fact that their risk of contracting the game-disease again was the same as everyone else’s. Not surprisingly, reducing the cost of protection increased the likelihood that people used it. And, all players were more likely to protect themselves when overall prevalence was high and less likely to do so as the prevalence dropped. 

The authors point to this last finding as one of the key reasons that it is so difficult to eradicate a disease. People’s attention to protection waxes and wanes depending on how the prevalence of the disease—as the rates drop people become less likely to use prevention methods. The researchers note that this reminded them of condom use and HIV; when the disease was discovered and the risk was high, condom use went up, but as prevalence came down in this country so did condom use.  

The lead author on the study believes this kind of game has many research applications. They could for example test a flu-like disease where getting ill once creates immunity or an HIV-like disease where you don’t know if you have it right away. “There are a lot of different kinds of diseases. There are a lot of different variations that we want to try,” he said. “I think this virtual, online epidemic setting is really a great framework.”

Colorado Legislator Introduces Bill to Mandate Comprehensive Sex Ed

Lawmakers in Colorado are seeking to improve sex education in the state and put some money behind it. Representative Crisanta Duran (D-Denver) and six other House Democrats introduced the bill to mandate sexuality education, change the language used to define it, and create a grant program for school districts to implement new courses. 

Currently Colorado law does not requires schools to teach sexuality education. Districts that choose to do so must emphasize abstinence as “the only certain way and the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” though they also must use curricula that are “science-based, age-appropriate, culturally relevant, medically accurate, and that discuss contraception, including emergency contraception (EC).”

The new bill mandates comprehensive sexuality education and defines it as providing “medically accurate information about all methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS, hepatitis C, and the link between human papillomavirus and cancer. Methods must include information about the correct and consistent use of abstinence, contraception, condoms, and other barrier methods.”

The bill also creates a grant program to be run by the Department of Public Health and Environment and funded by non-tax sources. It goes on to state that money in the program “must only be used for the purpose of providing comprehensive human sexuality education programs that are evidence-based, culturally sensitive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, reflective of positive youth development approaches, and that comply with statutory content standards.”  

The bill also changes administrative procedures around sex education. A 1990 law created a two-prong system in which most schools operated under an “opt-out” policy which allows parents to remove their child if they object to course material. Schools that received certain grant money from the state, however, were forced to use an “opt-in” system which only enrolls students after the school receives a signed permission slip. Opt-in measures are considered too restrictive (students may be left out because of an oversight rather than a strongly held belief) and place an administrative burden on schools. The new law would require schools that receive the grant money to use an opt-out policy.     

The bill has been assigned to the House Committee on Health, Insurance, and Environment. 

European Union Court Rules All Vibrators are (Essentially) the Same

Sometimes a headline just catches my attention like this one from Bloomberg.com “Vibrator With 3 Balls Can’t Win EU Trademark, Court Says.” I guess it was the visual that one has to conjure when thinking of a three-ball vibrator (though the article did not include a picture).

Fun Factory GmbH, a German sex toy company, applied to the EU trademark agency for “EU-wide intellectual property rights” for its vibrator arguing that the model was unique because its shape is significantly different from the “pole-like” design of most vibrators.

The trademark agency ruled against the company in January of 2012 saying that “the vibrator’s shape was functional and adapted to the human body, and as such not distinctive enough to gain protection.” The manufacturer appealed to the EU General Court in Luxembourg which also ruled against the company last week, stating:

“The shape in question doesn’t diverge considerably from the norm or what’s usual in that sector. Even if vibrators often have an elongated shape, several other shapes do exist in this market alongside each other with products that have a spherical, rounded or flattened appearance.” 

So the European courts are essentially saying that a vibrator is a vibrator is a vibrator.  I know a lot of women who would disagree. 

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: HIV Tests, Cameras in Vibrators, and Porn Producers Threaten to Leave the Golden State

Martha Kempner

This week, a new study shows that just one in five sexually active high school students has been tested for HIV; a porn producer with a large presence in San Francisco threatens to move to Las Vegas if a condom law is passed; and a vibrator lets you record your vagina during masturbation.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Too Few Teens Getting Tested for HIV

A new report based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance concludes that too few young people are getting tested for HIV. The report, which is scheduled to be presented on July 23 at the International AIDS Conference, found that only one in five sexually experienced U.S. teens has been tested for HIV. Researchers say this is especially concerning given that one in four new HIV infections in this country occur in young people between the ages of 13 and 24.

Laura Kann, chief of the CDC’s school-based surveillance branch, told HealthDay that these numbers are disturbing: “We have too many kids in this country at risk of HIV infection and we have not enough kids tested for HIV, and we need to do more.” She added that we don’t quite know why so few kids are getting tested but acknowledged that the modern perception of AIDS as a chronic but treatable disease may be part of the problem. “Young people today were not around in the early days of the epidemic and did not see the havoc that it wreaked. And there is just not the same emphasis in our society there was previously, so some amount of complacency is there,” she said.

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The CDC recommends that teens and adults ages 13 to 64 get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime as part of routine medical care. Those with risk factors should be tested more often.

Porn Company Threatens to Flee California in Advance of Condoms Bill

As Rewire has been reporting for a number of years now, there is a battle raging in California over whether adult film stars should be required to wear condoms during filming to protect themselves, each other, and their off-screen partners from sexually transmitted infections and HIV. A local ordinance that passed in Los Angeles County has yet to be enforced but a proposed state law that has been unsuccessfully introduced many times has a better chance of passing than it ever has before. AB 1576, introduced by Assembly member Isadore Hall, has passed the full assembly and one of the two state senate committees to which it is was assigned, meaning that it is just two votes (by the appropriations committee and the full senate) away from passage.

Each time advocates for condoms in porn make progress, industry leaders threaten to take their business elsewhere. And this week one of the larger producers in the state showed its intention to follow through by spending time in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kink, which specializes in films on bondage and fetishism, has a large presence in San Francisco. In 2007, the company bought the National Guard Amory complex in the Mission District, which had been vacant since 1975 for $14.5 million. In 2012, the company bought the nearby Armory Club and turned a dive bar into an upscale night club. Despite these ties to San Francisco, the company’s CEO, Peter Acworth, has said he will move out-of-state if the law passes. He issued a statement saying that he and his staff were in Las Vegas this week where they shot two feature-length films and looked into the state’s permitting rules.

This seems like a warning shot sent out to senators: Pass the bill and risk losing jobs and tax revenue in your districts.

The Vagina Videos: New Vibrator Comes With Camera

We’re now used to cameras in our cellphones, but how about in our sex toys? A Chinese company has invented the first vibrator with a built-in camera and light so that you can get an up-close-and-personal view of your genitals, presumably during masturbation or perhaps partner play. The vibrator, called the Svakom Gaga, comes with a USB port. Plug it into your computer and watch your own larger than life vulva and vagina videos. If you’re feeling really adventurous or in the mood to share, your partner can download a wireless app to let him or her control the vibrator and video from afar.

Though super close-ups don’t sound all that appealing to those of us at “This Week in Sex,” the company suggests that watching leads to learning. According to the company, Gaga “shares the exclusive right of gynecologist with you. Not only making you a better understanding and attention of your lover, but also making much fun for you.”

Like with any other sex tape, we should remind you of rule #1: “It always ends up on the Internet.” That said, we’re guessing no one will be able to recognize you from this particular angle.

Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: Michael Douglas Backtracks, Parents in China Want Sex Ed, and Condoms for Batman?

Martha Kempner

This week, Michael Douglas backtracked on his assertion that HPV caused his cancer, parents in China said they want sex education, a study showed Australian kids in same-sex families are doing well, and Durex's new social media campaign backfired.

Sexual Health Roundup is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Michael Douglas Backtracks on Claim That Cunnilingus Caused His Cancer

Michael Douglas made headlines last Monday after seeming to suggest to a reporter at The Guardian that he blamed the human papillomavirus (HPV)—not drinking or smoking—for his throat cancer diagnosis. As Douglas mentioned in that interview, HPV can be transmitted through oral sex. At the time, I suggested that Douglas’ announcement was probably good for public health as he was, purposely or not, raising awareness of HPV, the resulting health problems (which include cervical cancer and cancers of the head and neck), and the availability of a vaccine.

Since then, Douglas has issued two statements backtracking from his initial comments. First, his publicist clarified that “Michael did not say cunnilingus was the cause of his cancer. He certainly discussed oral sex in the article, and oral sex is a suspected cause of certain oral cancers, as the doctors in the article did point out. But he did not say this was the specific cause of his personal cancer.”

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It is probably more accurate to say that the precise cause of his cancer is not known or that it was, in fact, caused by a number of factors, HPV being one of them. As Kent Sepkowicz noted in a piece for the Daily Beast, the epidemiology of cancer is complicated, and a straight cause-and-effect relationship is hard to pin down.

Then, on ABC’s The View, Douglas’ friend Barbara Walters said, “The feeling was that perhaps he was blaming his wife for giving him the HPV virus. Michael would like everyone to know that his wife, Catherine [Zeta-Jones], is healthy. She does not have the HPV virus. He doesn’t know how he got cancer. … He does not want anyone to think it was from Catherine. … He is happy it is raising awareness about HPV.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 79 million people in the United States have HPV, and 14 million contract it each year. In fact, the CDC estimates that 50 percent of sexually active individuals will contract HPV at some point in their lives. That Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones felt the need to clarify that she’s part of the other 50 percent illustrates the stigma HPV and other sexually transmitted infections continue to carry.

Parents in China Want More Sex Education

A recent survey of 1,200 Chinese parents of children ages 6 to 14, conducted by the Beijing News and the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center, found that parents in China overwhelmingly support sex education in schools, but few schools are providing it.

The survey comes after research suggest that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise in China and that 13 million unintended pregnancies end in abortion in that country each year. While the government still keeps close tabs on fertility and enforces a one-child policy (though there are now some exceptions), it apparently does not teach young people how to prevent pregnancy. Moreover, a recent spate of child molestations near Beijing has made the lack of sex education more worrisome.

The majority of parents in the survey (68 percent) said they have discussed some aspects of sex with their child, but only 38 percent had discussed inappropriate sexual advances and what to do about them. Parents say the schools are not currently educating children about sex at all; only 8.3 percent of parents surveyed were sure that their child had received sex education in school. A much larger percentage (43.5 percent) knew there were no such classes at their child’s school.

Parents in China would like this to change; 90 percent of those surveyed said they support school-based education about birth control and sexual abuse.

Children of Same-Sex Couple Are Doing Just Fine (in Australia)

Initial findings from an Australian study of families shows that there are no statistical differences between children of same-sex couples and children in other types of families when it comes to measures of self-esteem, emotional behavior, or the amount of time spent with parents. Children of same-sex couples, however, scored better on measures of overall health and family cohesion (how well the family gets along). The study’s lead researcher believes that same-sex couples are aware of the teasing or bullying their children might face and develop open communication to deal with it, which in turn creates better family cohesion.

Australia’s parliament was set to vote on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage this week but the vote has been postponed to allow more time for debate.

Durex Social Media Campaign Goes Awry

The condom maker took to Facebook to launch a new public relations campaign called SOS Condoms, which was designed to send condoms via rush delivery to couples who are on the verge of having sex but are unprepared. The company asked its Facebook fans to vote on which city should receive this service. Unfortunately, it did not make this a multiple choice question. Internet pranksters hijacked the vote and decided to send the condom service to Batman, a conservative Muslim province in Turkey that shares the name with the caped crusader.

Had Paris, London, or New York City won, we might be seeing online ads for the SOS Condom service right now, but instead the company has decided to abandon the campaign. A Durex spokeswoman told Bloomberg that the service won’t be offered in Batman or anywhere else and that the company’s social media efforts are moving “on to a new sphere.”

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