This Week in Sex: Magical Thinking About Pregnancy, Home Herpes Testing, and Mr. Balls


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

Some Millennials Think They’re Immune to Pregnancy

A new study from the Guttmacher Institute finds that many young women who experienced an unintended pregnancy had somehow convinced themselves that they couldn’t or wouldn’t get pregnant. The authors interviewed 49 women, most of them between the ages of 20 and 24. All of the women had recently had an abortion. In the qualitative interviews, researchers asked the women about their contraceptive use and their perceived risk of pregnancy. Most of the women said they thought they were at low risk of pregnancy. Some women said they thought they were infertile, and others believed they were protected by contraception despite the fact that they were using it sporadically and/or incorrectly. Other women told the researchers that they paid little attention to the possibility of pregnancy, and still others acknowledged an overriding belief that it just wouldn’t happen to them, without being able to articulate why.

The researchers describe this perceived invulnerability to pregnancy as “magical thinking” and suggest that it shows a “disconnect between the actual risk of pregnancy incurred by an average couple who does not use contraceptives (85% risk of pregnancy over the course of a year) and a woman’s efforts to protect herself from unintended pregnancy.”

Also of concern is that other women in the study believed they were protected by contraception methods that they were often using incorrectly. One women explained why taking her pills occasionally seemed adequate: “I just thought … they were like magic. If I missed it one day, it wouldn’t really matter.”

The researchers concluded that we need to better understand women’s perceptions of both pregnancy risk and contraceptive use in order to design interventions that can help them prevent unintended pregnancies.

Coming to Your Bathroom in 2015: Home Herpes Test

Boston Microfluidics is working on KnowNow, an at-home sexually transmitted disease (STD) test about the size of a toothbrush case that uses blood from a finger prick to test for herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), spitting out results in less than five minutes. Other companies offer at-home herpes testing, but as of now all require users to send a sample back to a lab and wait a few days or weeks for results.

Bill Frezza, a contributor for Forbes, wrote about the test’s intended audience: “These kids are totally unencumbered by the social mores we Baby Boomers grew up with. They appear to have no shame, no sense of privacy, no modesty, and no concern about their reputations.”

While I disagree with him completely on this, I worry that his vision of how this new test might be used could have a grain of accuracy to it. He says, “But when the magic moment arrives, instead of reaching into your pocket or purse for a condom you whip out a pair of cheap, disposable multi-function STD testers, part of a six pack you picked up at CVS. Reassured of each other’s status, you and your paramour get back to whatever passes for romance these days with your minds at ease.”

The problem is that no one should be reassured to the point of ditching the condoms by the results of this test, because it only looks for one STD. Moreover, as I discussed in my article earlier this week about a new online platform for sharing STD results, while HSV-2 can be detected using a blood test, that test returns many false positives. Herpes is better diagnosed by a health-care provider during an outbreak. In addition, HSV-1, the strain of the virus linked to oral herpes sores, is now causing many cases of genital herpes, but this test does not cover that. Given these limitations, I’m not sure what this product adds to the field. If, as Frezza suggests, it gives couples the idea that it’s OK to have sex without a condom, it may actually be a step backward for our public health goals.

As I seem to be saying a lot this week, STD testing is very important. Improving access and encouraging testing are great goals. We just keep failing in the execution.

Mr. Balls, Coming Soon to a School Near You (If You’re in Brazil)

When we think of mascots, we tend to think of people dressed as over-sized animals. There are also stranger ones like Mr. Met (the giant baseball) and the Philly Fanatic (what is he?). But here’s one I never thought I’d see: Mr. Balls. Or, to be more accurate, Senhor Testiculo.

Yep, some lucky person in Brazil gets to dress up as a friendly, buck-toothed set of testicles, complete with curly wisps of pubic hair. The mascot was created by Brazil’s Association of Personal Assistance for Cancer in an effort to raise awareness of testicular cancer, which is on the rise in countries around the world. The organization’s website says, “Both children and adults loved taking pictures with the mascot, a friendly snowman in the shape of testicle.”

According to the American Cancer Society, about 7,920 new cases of testicular cancer will be diagnosed this year in the United States, and about 370 men will die from the disease. Testicular cancer is highly treatable. Some health-care providers suggest that men do regular testicular self-exams to look for lumps or changes, but research does not show that this reduces deaths from the disease, so it’s not universally recommended. Still, it is important for men to be aware of this disease, especially young men, as it is most common in those ages 20 to 34.

So maybe Mr. Balls is exactly the mascot we need.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner