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When Sex Equals AIDS: Symbolic Stigma and Heterosexual Adults' Inaccurate Beliefs about Sexual Transmission of AIDS

Gregory M. Herek, Keith F. Widaman, John P. Capitanio
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/sp.2005.52.1.15 15-37 First published online: 1 February 2005


Data from an experiment embedded in a national telephone survey of heterosexual, English-speaking U.S. adults (N = 1,283) were used to examine the relationship between manifestations of symbolic stigma and erroneous beliefs about AIDS transmission. Each respondent was presented with three scenarios describing a hypothetical sexual encounter between a protagonist and an HIV-negative or HIV-positive partner in which condoms were or were not used. The partner's gender and the protagonist's gender and sexual orientation were experimentally manipulated. Nearly all respondents knew that AIDS could be contracted through unprotected sex with a person with AIDS. A substantial minority erroneously believed it could be contracted through sex with an uninfected partner, and significantly more respondents believed that a homosexual or bisexual man who had sex with another (uninfected) man risked contracting AIDS compared to respondents who were asked about a heterosexual encounter. Inaccurate beliefs about HIV transmission through unprotected sex were predicted by socioeconomic status (lower educational level and income), gender (being female), race (being black), religiosity, personal concern about contracting AIDS, and lack of knowledge about HIV transmission through casual contact. With other variables statistically controlled, sexual prejudice was a significant predictor of inaccurate beliefs about HIV transmission through protected sex but not unprotected sex.

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