General Articles

Adults’ Claims of STD Knowledge Don’t Match Behaviors

A recent online survey conducted by the American Social Health Association (ASHA), an organization dedicated to preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), suggests that while adults claim to be very knowledgeable about STDs, their behaviors do not support their claims. While 84% of the adults surveyed reported that they take necessary precautions to protect themselves against STDs when engaging in intercourse, 45% of single respondents did not regularly use protection when engaging in vaginal intercourse, 66% did not regularly use protection during anal intercourse, and 91% did not regularly use protection during oral intercourse. ASHA estimates that one in four Americans will contract an STD within their lifetime but 68% of those surveyed were not concerned about contracting an STD.

"The findings in our survey are quite disturbing. Despite the fact that STDs are extremely widespread and have severe consequences, it is troubling that there is such a large portion of people who still feel invincible," said James R. Allen, president and chief executive officer of ASHA. "In addition, people’s lack of awareness about the various STDs only underscores the need for continued education to prevent the spread of these serious diseases."1

ASHA conducted the online poll to determine adults’ attitudes and behaviors as part of an STD education initiative in connection with STD Awareness Month in April. The online survey was conducted in the United States from March 3-8 and polled 1,155 adults, ages 18-35.

In addition to finding discrepancies between adults’ claims and their protective behaviors, the poll showed that adults often fail to communicate with their sexual partners about STDs. For example, 93% of participants believe their current or most recent sexual partner does not have an STD, however, only one third of respondents had ever discussed STDs with their partner, and only about half reported that their partner had been tested.

The poll further suggested that adults are not seeking medical advice regarding STDs. According to the survey, less than half of participants had ever spoken to their doctor about STDs, usually because they did not think they were at risk for contracting an STD.

Given a list of common conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and depression, adults surveyed claimed they were most knowledgeable about STDs. Further questioning, however, revealed significant gaps in that claim. Self-reported knowledge about viral hepatitis ranked the lowest among a list of common STDs, including HIV, chlamydia, humanpapilloma virus, genital herpes and gonorrhea. Many participants were unaware that vaccines are available for prevention of hepatitis A and hepatitis B (55% and 42 %, respectively), and about 60% had not been vaccinated or were unsure of their immunization status.

Advocates of reproductive and sexual health say that the survey shows a continued need for sexual health education. "One of the challenges that we have as we move forward in the early part of the 21st century is to understand how we can help people make the right choices to understand that they have real control of a lot of the health risks in their lives," said Allen.

"With the current proliferation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, we are concerned that our young people are not prepared to reverse this disturbing trend," said Bill Smith, director of public policy at SIECUS.

Read ASHA’s press release regarding the study.


  1. Press release, "Survey Suggests Lack of Awareness Heightens Risk for Sexually Transmitted Diseases," American Social Health Association.