Peer Pressure and Safer Sex

I’m not usually a fan of peer pressure, given that it’s often used to shame people who are at the ends of the bell curve who aren’t actually doing anything wrong. But when it’s in support of a positive shift and done with a light touch, I think it can have a positive effect.

The Wall Street Journal has an article about some of the ways that subtle peer pressure and community norms can influence decisions about reducing energy use, not using plastic bags, and other environmentally-friendly things we can do. It seems that when we think that “everyone is doing it,” we’re more likely to join in. In fact, sometimes all it takes is seeing other people model the behaviors in question:

In one recent study that hasn’t yet been published, Mr. Schultz gave frequent drinkers in the U.S., Germany, Mexico and Japan personalized information about how their alcohol consumption compared with the norms in their country. In follow-up questioning, study participants in Mexico and Japan\’where the cultures are more consensus-driven than in the other two countries\’acknowledged that information about the social norm had swayed their behavior. Those in the U.S. and Germany\’both cultures that prize individualism\’ said knowledge of their peers’ behavior hadn’t influenced them. But in all four countries, the subjects reduced their drinking compared with control groups.

Psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr describes one such study in his book “Fostering Sustainable Behavior.” A college gym’s shower room displayed a prominent sign urging students to conserve water by turning off the shower while they soaped up. Only 6% did so initially. But when researchers planted an accomplice who shut off his water midshower, 49% of students followed suit. When there were two accomplices, compliance jumped to 67%, even though the accomplices didn’t discuss their actions or make eye contact with other students.

This makes me wonder what we could do to use this tendency to support safer sex choices. Of course, unless you go to sex clubs, you’re not likely to actually see other people using safer sex gear. But if we talk about our safer sex practices, maybe that would be enough to help create a shift. If we can bring it out of the closet and make it part of our social norms, that might make it easier for people to get on board.

Most safer sex messages are aimed at the 16-25 year old crowd, and we know that older folks aren’t getting the message. Maybe this is a strategy that could help.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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