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


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.

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. 

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