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Straight Talk About Sex

While the majority of women are having sex, many women just don't talk about their sexual health -- with their doctor or their partner.

That's the finding of a new survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and published in the July issue of Self magazine.

What was also surprising, Tina Hoff of the Kaiser Foundation notes in an interview on The Eary Show is that "Half of the women had never had a conversation about HIV or other STDs with a doctor."

Conducted between Dec. 10, 2002, and Jan. 19, 2003, the survey focused on 800 women aged 18-49. Two-thirds of the women surveyed are currently married or living with a partner (56 percent married; 10 percent living with partner). Of the third who are single, 20 percent never married, 10 percent are divorced, 2 percent are separated and 1 percent are widowed. Of al 800, 94 percent had had sexual intercourse and 84 percent were currently in a sexual relationship, with half (52 percent) of the single women in a current sexual relationship.

Among the reasons behind the silence, Hoff explains, is the way women are concerned about what their partner would think of them. Hoff says, "A lot of women worry that they're going to be judged. They think their partner might leave them. A number of women told us they don't think these are issues that women should talk about today."

The subject is also embarrassing to women.

"Two-thirds of the women in the survey said these are things they wouldn't even talk about with their closest friends, never mind their doctors and partners," Hoff notes. "They don't know how to bring up these issues. Many don't think they're at risk so they don't think it affects them. And they don't think that their doctors even need know. We're talking about reproductive health doctors."

Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a New York gynecologist, says doctors also may be uncomfortable talking about these issues with their patients. She says, "Some doctors are not well prepared in medical school as regards to taking a sexual history and asking those very important questions. Then we have a factor of time. There's also not enough time to talk about those sensitive issues with a patient."

But talking about it is critical. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three Americans living with HIV doesn't know it.

Dr. Hutcherson, also the author of "What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex," says there are a lot of misconceptions about sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.

She says, "Women think that you to have multiple sexual partners and you have to have intercourse in order to get a sexually transmitted infection. When, in fact, you only need one episode, and you can get it just by intimate skin-to-skin contact.

"And they also have a lot of misconceptions about pregnancy. Half the pregnancies in this country are unintended. We have emergency contraception, but only 10 percent of women in this country take advantage of that," Dr. Hutcherson says.

Topping the list of health concerns among women is breast cancer followed by uterine, ovarian and cervical cancer, Dr. Hucherson says.

"When, in fact, the No. 1 risk that we have as women is heart disease. One in two women will get heart disease. And second in line is sexually transmitted infection. One in four women will be exposed to an infection in their life-time."

Next week is National HIV testing day. Hoff says, "We're encouraging women to get tested for HIV or at least have a conversation about these topics. At minimum, we can start that dialogue."

The survey found women are under the impression that when women have their gynecological exams, the doctors are doing all the tests, when in fact they are not. So the advice is for women to take charge of own sexual health.

Hoff says the survey found some encouraging trends with women in their 20s more knowledgeable and less shy than women in their 30s and 40s. She says, "Younger women were more empowered to take charge of their sexual health. They were buying condoms, having them on hand. They were encouraging their partners to get tested."