When men and women lie about their sexual history, it may seem harmless and, in some cases, frivolous, but those lies are actually quite harmful to public health, a new essay by Shervin Assari, a research investigator of Psychiatry and Public Health at the University of Michigan, explained.
By lying about sexual history, it can make it difficult to collect reliable data about STI population in order to prevent further spreading.
The report also found that lying about sexual history was gender-based — women tended to under report the amount of sexual partners or sexual experiences they’ve had, whereas men tended to over report. By lying about their sexual history, it helped them fit into societal gender norms of how women and men should behave when it comes to sex.
“As gender norms create different expectations about socially acceptable behavior of men and women, males and females face pressures in reporting certain (socially accepted) behaviors,” Assari wrote in his essay. “In particular, self-reports on premarital sexual experience is of poor quality. Also self-reports of infidelity are less valid.”
The lying starts at a relatively early age as well — young boys are more likely than girls to lie about the timing of their first sexual experience. In fact, only 22 percent of the boys reported the same date of their first sexual experience the second time they were asked.
People lied about their sexual history even in situations where the lie was obviously false. According to a nationally representative study of American youth known as Add Health, 45 out of 7,870 women reported at least one virgin pregnancy. Another study found that more than 10 percent of young adults reported to abstaining from any sexual intercourse in the last year before testing positive for an STD.
STIs are a big problem in the United States. There are nearly 20 million new infections a year, half of which are among the youth population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These lies about sexual history, Assari explained, can skew records of sexually transmitted disease in certain demographics. It also undermines health care providers and programs designed to plan and protect against STIs.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.