Not Taking Responsibility

October 22nd, 2008

When is it ok to not take responsibility for your actions? When is it ok to be passive in your approach to life? Is it ok to maintain anonymity when your actions may have forever changed someone’s life?

I ask these questions because of a report out this week in the PLoS online journal regarding an anonymous approach to telling people that you might have given them a sexually transmitted disease. The method uses postcards, and seems to be quite successful.

On the one hand, I understand why it works. I can see the appeal, and why it would be successful. STD’s are looked down upon in our society. They are socially embarrassing to the people who have contracted them. Hence, there is a problem with the reporting of STDs to sexual partners. If you could tell past sexual partners that they might be at risk without actually having to tell them it was you, wouldn’t it make you more likely to be honest?

Any method that can increase the rate of reporting is a good method because it will lead to more people being tested and treated, and to a decrease in transmission. So, I would never say that this isn’t a useful program.

However, I think it points to a problem in our society with the acceptance of sex as a natural process. And, moreso, acceptance that sex with more than one partner over one’s lifespan is a fact of life for many people. It’s hard to face up to something that is viewed as dirty by society. The way that we teach children to view sex is the starting point for many of the problems that we’re now trying to solve with things like anonymous postcards.

Second, the postcard approach makes me feel like we as a society are saying that it is ok for people to disregard personal responsibility. Where’s that going to leave us?

11 Responses to “Not Taking Responsibility”

  1. Marc on October 22, 2008 2:53 pm

    I can see the pros for the postcard but then I thought, gee, how many people do you have to have sex with before it is too difficult for you to know who sent the card? I’m no prude but I never had so many partners so frequently that I wouldn’t know.

    As for responsibility, given the life altering nature of some STDs I think it’s pretty cowardly to not step up and tell past partners that they should get checked.

  2. Serafina on October 22, 2008 2:58 pm

    “we as a society are saying that it is ok for people to disregard personal responsibility.”

    I think the postcard approach is promoting responsibility. Especially since the alternative for most people using the service would be to not inform their partners at all.

    Why does anonymity negate responsibility?

    Of course, ideally, people would be comfortable talking about these things face to face, but it’s a baby step in the right direction, I think.

  3. EP of the Intraweb on October 22, 2008 3:17 pm

    We should be open and honest about sex and health, but for a variety of reasons some people will be reluctant to deliver the news to old partners. The intent of the postcards is quite noble, but it gives rise to the problems that accompany anonymity.

    Here are some quick ideas for misuse:

    – Send an erroneous notice to an Ex you are want vengeance on
    -Send a notice to someone from an email address that is not yours
    – Send the notice to the wrong email address

    There are no controls in place to ensure that the one sending the postcard has a bonafide STD to warn others of, that the others one warns were sexual partners, or that you are who you say you are. Receiving an (errant) notice will be seen by a current partner as evidence of a sexual relationship that may never have taken place. Imagine if a spouse of 10 years finds such a message in the other spouse’s Inbox.

    Its a nice idea, but relationships and sex being the matter it is, we could see some interesting misuse.

    I swear, I did not have sex with Miss Lewinsky!


  4. Podblack on October 22, 2008 3:53 pm

    … and a hundred thousand postmasters go home with a very graphically good idea of who is up to what and getting wergrhrhhh!! with who…

  5. Jim Dittmer on October 22, 2008 4:01 pm

    The classic conflict between morality and efficacy. Do we push for personal responsibly and “moral” behavior at the risk of endangering another person? Do schools teach “abstinence only” even as teenage birthrates climb? Do cities abandon needle exchange and free condom programs at the risk of spreading HIV? Isn’t the question really, what is the responsibility of organizations in the implementation of moral behavior? We need to encourage individuals to act in a socially/morally responsible way; institutions need to act in an efficient, effective, and expedient manner.

  6. alloycowboy on October 22, 2008 5:03 pm

    Oh wow you really opened a can of worms.

    Never mind the post card. The problem is worse then that. The aids virus is 10 microns in diameter. The average pour in a latex condom is 80 microns. It’s like throwing a BB through a chain link fence. In the real world Condoms have a failure rate between 10-20%. So basicly it’s like playing russian roulette with latex. On top of that alot of STD’s are transmitted by skin to skin contact which condoms have no effect on what so ever. In 2001 the CDC estimated that 1-5 people 19-35 had at least one STD. However various reports on HPV (Human papillomavirus) expect the infection to top out at about 80% of the population. So if that is any indicator where infection rates are head for other STD’s it is going to get real ugly.

    So the question is how ethical is it to tell the world condoms will keep you safe from STD’s when the statisics show other wise?


  7. Jeremy Langley on October 22, 2008 5:41 pm

    Are you asking about a moral value system which doesn’t come from the individual’s desires?

  8. Corey J Feldman on October 29, 2008 8:55 am

    I think it is a complicated issue but basically I am for it. It reminds me of Sex Ed. While I can see why many parents do not want it taught in school, it is more important that our children aren’t harmed by ignorance. Same thing with STD’s. The longer an STD goes untreated/detected, the more damage and possible other infections can occur. I wish we lived in a world where people owned up to their responsibilities. While I do think the stigma of STDs is an added factor in people’s reluctance to directly contact people they may have infected, I don’t think it is the only issue. Some people fear confrontation, some just can’t take ownership for their actions. Unfortunately people don’t always do the right thing. Think of how many people scratch or dent a car in a parking lot and drive off without leaving a note or how many people flee the scene of a traffic accident. I do think we need to take a look at our sexual mores and associated stigmas as a society. But more importantly we need to create a society that values taking responsibility for your actions. While anonymous notifications systems enable people avoid personal responsibility, I would rather have that and save the lives and/or reproductive futures.

  9. Jacob Stein on October 29, 2008 1:22 pm

    How about telling people not to have sex unless they’re married? That seemed to work pretty well up until about 1960.

  10. dh on October 30, 2008 11:24 pm

    “the postcard approach makes me feel like we as a society are saying that it is ok for people to disregard personal responsibility.”

    This really shouldn’t be surprising. More and more as a society we are disregarding personal responsibility and accountability about everything. We can thank the lawyers and the gov’t (probably more the democrats but certainly not exclusively) for that. It’s very unfortunate and sad but, unless we somehow fundamentally change the entitlement and victim mentality of our society, it’s only going to get worse.

  11. clm on July 24, 2009 5:10 pm

    @Jacob Stein: Actually, it didn’t work as well as people like to paint it. We simply know more today, interact with a larger portion of the population, etc, etc. Regardless, the world has moved on and trying to turn us back to a time (when it was also near-acceptable to beat your wife) is like asking a bullet-train to make a U-turn. The momentum of human society is not something that is very well controlled, much less reversed.

    Besides, this is a science blog, we should be talking about scientific solutions, not authoritarian or subjectively moral solutions 🙂

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