Public Release: 

Bedroom partners more honest when it comes to health risks

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Champaign, IL -- Valentine's Day is fast approaching, a time for romance and sex - and more than a few lies.

Everyone's dishonest at times in sexual situations, says Sunyna Williams, a community health professor at the University of Illinois. They lie about anything from their feelings to their sexual past. The good news, according to research Williams has done during the last five years with college students, is that people say they're more honest when it comes to things that might threaten their partner's health.

They tell more lies to casual sex partners than they do to partners in more-committed relationships, and the riskier their past the more likely they are to lie about it - making for a good argument to use condoms and not trust what casual partners say, she said.

But with all types of partners, her subjects said they lied less about "risk-relevant" matters - such as testing for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, past use of condoms, etc. - than about matters of the heart, or those that carried little risk for the partner.

"Things that would put the other person at great risk, they were more honest about; things that they thought were none of [the other person's] business, they were less honest about," Williams said. Her studies involved asking subjects about both theoretical and actual situations, and she found that even when people said they would, or had, lied, they exhibited relatively little denial or rationalization about what they were doing. "If they do happen to tell a lie about something that's risk-relevant, they feel a lot worse about it ... and they see that it's serious and unacceptable." In other words, they knew what they were doing, knew they had only themselves in mind, but lied anyway. That doesn't mean Williams and her research colleagues didn't come across some curious attempts by subjects to rationalize their dishonesty. "Many of them said they were lying to keep the partner from mistrusting them," she said.

Williams presented some of her research at conferences last year of the American Psychological Association and the American Public Health Association. A paper summarizing four studies on the subject has been accepted for publication later this year in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Williams did point out that there was one significant exception to the rule that subjects were more honest about risk-relevant issues: "The most common lie that was told across the board was lying about cheating in an established relationship." Couples moving toward a closer relationship, and wanting to establish trust, tend to dispense too quickly with precautions like condoms, without being honest about whether the relationship is exclusive, she said. "That's when the open communication is the most important, because that's when they potentially put themselves at the greatest risk."

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