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If only priests and policymakers understood arousal more

By CHAY FLORENTINO-HOFILEÑA

Did you know that arguments for the distribution of condoms can be based on results of a scientific experiment that sought to show the influence of arousal on behavior?

In the heated debates over the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, proponents have used the poverty card often enough, if not resorted to criticizing advocates who rely solely on religious beliefs and Vatican pronouncements. Others have also used women’s rights and women’s health, even freedom of choice as counter-arguments to the weighty appeal to religious authority.

Opponents of safe sex advocates assert that distributing condoms for free would promote promiscuity, irresponsible sexual behavior on the part of the youth, and even unwanted pregnancies. To counter this, proponents of the RH bill cite recent survey results from Pulse Asia indicating that 69 percent of Filipinos favor the passage of the bill.

Surely, there has got to be a fresh perspective in all these exchanges. Looking at the debate over the distribution of condoms, for example, one could search for something empirically convincing. I found it in one of the amusing chapters of Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” published in 2008.

Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational."

Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational."

Ariely and his collaborator carried out an experiment, tapping bright Berkeley students in 2001 to “understand the degree to which rational, intelligent people can predict how their attitudes will change when they are in an impassioned state.” They chose sexual arousal, so common and predictable among college students, because “understanding the impact of arousal on behavior might help society grapple with some of its most difficult problems, such as teen pregnancy and the spread of HIV-AIDS.”

Berkeley students, according to Ariely, are neither wild, rebellious nor risk-taking teenagers. 25 males were chosen for the experiment and were given a 12-key multicolored keypad to respond to questions answerable by yes or no. In their rational cold state, they were asked to imagine being sexually aroused and to reply to the questions as they would if they were aroused. Among the questions asked were, “Would you encourage your date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with you? and “Would you always use a condom if you didn’t know the sexual history of a new sexual partner?”

The conditions in a second session were slightly altered as the same subjects were instructed to get themselves aroused by viewing erotic pictures on a computer and masturbating. “What we want you to do is to arouse yourself to a high level, but not to ejaculate. In case you do, though, the computer will be protected.” An Apple iBook whose keyboard and screen were covered with Saran wrap were given to the subjects who were asked the same set of questions.

In Ariely's study, 25 percent of the respondents were more likely to forgo the use of condom while in a state of arousal. (Photo from Medicins Sans Frontieres website)

In Ariely's study, 25 percent of the respondents were more likely to forego the use of condom while in a state of arousal. (Photo from Medicins Sans Frontieres website)

What did Ariely discover? Among others, he found that despite repeated warnings about the importance of condoms, subjects were 25 percent more likely to forego their use when in an aroused state. The propensity to engage in immoral activities when aroused also increased by more than double. “Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen.”

“Sexual arousal is familiar, personal, very human, and utterly commonplace. Even so, we all systematically underpredict the degree to which arousal completely negates our superego, and the way emotions can take control of our behavior,” Ariely asserts.

Those who believe that abstinence is adequate protection against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies may be wrong. According to Ariely, “in the heat of passion, we are all in danger of switching from ‘Just say no’ to ‘Yes!’ in a heartbeat; and if no condom is available, we are likely to say yes, regardless of the dangers.” Just think of priests who themselves have sired children, or of religious who have engaged in consensual though prohibited sex.

What do the findings of his experiment suggest? For teenagers, it is important to teach them how to say no “before a situation becomes impossible to resist.” Likewise, precisely because this may not be easy since passion cannot be switched off at will, widespread availability of condoms is essential—just in case.

“One thing is sure: if we don’t teach our young people how to deal with sex when they are half out of their minds, we are not only fooling them; we’re fooling ourselves as well.” If only there were less hypocrisy around, we would perhaps be closer to formulating more sound policies and strategies relating to reproductive health and safe sex. Newsbreak, independent journalism from the Philippines

CATEGORY: Chay Florentino-Hofileña
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  1. If condoms do reduce the chances the STDs, as you optimistically put it, then how would that study be judged with this study (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/27/AR2009032702825.html) and juxtapose it with your optimism on condoms as effective tools against STDs such as HIV

  2. Joseph, are you sure you read the article? It was not entirely about condoms – that was very much far from the point. It's about stressing the need for sex education and "formulating policies and strategies relating to reproductive health and safety."

    Sex education does not translate to: "Children, use condoms and begin coitus with your seatmates right now." Sex education can also mean saying no before things get uncontrollable, as the writer says.

    To the writer…

    I think the problem with people who oppose the RH bill and other measures promoting sex euducation, is that they do not want to listen, (or in this case read), and once they see the words "condom" and "sex", they think of the devil. Which is very much a hypocrisy.

  3. darylslimshady says:

    The key is the virtue of self-mastery. As a virtue (good habit), it demands practice, struggle, repetition. Those who have given in bigtime are those who have not struggled, or have struggled, but less and less so until they "fell."

    The sad thing about Ms Hofilena's perspective is that it's too pessimistic about human beings' power to choose what is good, overcoming obstacles within and without.

    May I invite Ms Hofilena to read "Rethinking AIDS Prevention" by Harvard Director for AIDS Prevention Edward C. Green. It was found out that availability of condoms only makes people take wilder sexual risks.

  4. Joseph,couldn't seem to open the link to the Post you cited, sorry. But I think the main point really of Ariely is not about condoms being effective tools against STD, but that we just need to recognize that even the most morally upright or conservative among us could suddenly behave so out of character when in a heightened state of arousal. It's basically the Jekyll and Hyde principle. Given this, the question being asked is, how do you best protect yourself against your own self? In another situation, if you knew you are likely to shoot a gun when you are emotionally charged, you would likely not bring a gun along if you anticipate being caught in traffic — you know you can become so angry it can be unsafe for you to have a gun within reach. You know you can turn into an irrational animal.

  5. Jomie, I agree that over-simplifications do not help enlightened discussions at all. There are just too many nuances and complications. And all these need to be addressed especially when it comes to the issue of reproductive health.

  6. Darylslimshady, sometimes human beings need to fall before they can rise up. Yes, as Aristotle says, you become what you repeatedly do, and virtue is about character. I don't want to get into a philosophical discussion, though that could get real interesting. I'd like to believe that the strength of the human spirit can be tested either way — its power to stand up to temptation or its ability to rise after a really bad fall. I'd also add that it lies in the ability and the humility to accept that there are inherent weaknesses in each one of us. I hear you when you say that the use of condoms will not eliminate AIDS and could even exacerbate it. Interestingly, Green espouses the ABC model (i.e., Abstain, Be faithful, and failing A and B, use Condoms). I don't have any quarrel with that.

  7. darylslimshady's point makes sense. like really.

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