Most people know that condoms are a highly effective way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, but some people appear to apply a bit of magical thinking to when protection is necessary. In a depressing new study, researchers found that men decide whether or not to wear a condom based on how "hot" they consider their sexual partner.
For the study, researchers at Britain's University of South Hampton recruited 51 heterosexual men to determine whether the attractiveness of a woman influenced their decision to practice safe sex. The researchers were building off of previous studies suggesting that the more attractive someone is, the more likely he or she is to be perceived as "healthy." (This perception has also been documented as the "halo effect," a psychological phenomenon in which we assume beautiful people are pure of heart, smart, and generally awesome.)
For the experiment, published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ Open, researchers surveyed each man about his sex life, condom use, and history of sexually transmitted infections. Next, they showed the participants pictures of 20 women and asked them to the rate each woman's attractiveness on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being stunningly gorgeous.
From there, the researchers went for the kill—asking the men detailed questions about each woman's photo, including whether or not they would have sex with her, whether or not they would use a condom, whether they think other men would use a condom, and whether or not they believed the woman pictured had a sexually transmitted infection. Each answer was given on a likeliness scale of 0 to 100.
Once the researchers reviewed the data, a few notable results emerged. First, they observed that the more attractive the men found a woman, the more likely he'd be willing to have sex with her. No shock there. But they also observed that the more attractive the men found a woman, the less likely they were to report that they would use a condom during sex. But that's not all—the men also said that other men would likely choose not to wear a condom with attractive women, too. And yet, strangely, the researchers found no association between how the men perceived a woman's attractiveness and her likelihood of having an STI.
This logic had the researchers baffled: If men were less likely in general to wear a condom during sex with attractive women, wouldn't attractive women be at a much greater risk for carrying an STI? And wouldn't this, theoretically, make having sex with attractive women incredibly risky? If no one is wearing condoms, someone's getting herpes.
This study was incredibly small, so its results should be taken with a grain of salt. But they raise one big question: Why did the men respond the way they did about condom use? The researchers believe one reason could be that "Such men might believe that attractive women take care of themselves more than less attractive women do, and therefore that they are healthier and pose less of a health risk, legitimizing their reduced condom use intentions." Blergh.
However, previous research paints a different picture. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found that women rated as highly attractive are also seen as more promiscuous, and more promiscuous women are seen as more likely to have an STI, thus negating the healthy halo effect.
Basically, two competing and contradictory thought processes emerge when it comes to safe sex. The first: This person is attractive and therefore must be healthy. The second: This person is attractive and must have a lot of sex and thus is more likely to have an STI.
But get this—in a 2012 study that focused on how women practice safe sex, the same two explanations for mens' actions emerged simultaneously, despite their contradictory nature. Researchers found that women were more likely to have unprotected sex with an attractive man, even though those same women believed more attractive men were more likely to have an STI. Wut?
Indeed, in the current study, the researchers observed a similar trend: The more a man wanted to have sex with a woman, the more risks he was will to take—which, in their highly scientific opinion, appeared "irrational." The researchers added, "People are often fully aware of the ‘rational’ responses (in a health promotion sense), but their actual behavior does not necessarily follow suit."
To all of this, I say—come on, people. We can't know if someone has an STI based on their physical appearance. And we shouldn't risk contracting a disease just because someone is "hot." The only way to know a sexual partner's health status is to ask—or even better, to get tested together. Because we all know what happens when we assume.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.