Apr. 16, 1998 Writer: Cathy Keen, email@example.com
Source: Marie Helweg-Larsen, (352) 392-0601, ext. 280; firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Photographs showing women how to examine their breasts for cancer may end up discouraging some from doing the potentially lifesaving procedure, a University of Florida researcher has found.
Erotophobia -- the fear of things relating to sex or nudity -- also can make some women less likely to use birth control, see a gynecologist or take other preventive health measures, said Marie Helweg-Larsen, a UF psychology professor who did the research.
Women who were most erotophobic reported feeling less competent to do breast self-exams if a brochure contained photographs showing them how to do the procedure than if it simply used the same text but without the picture, Helweg-Larsen said. She studied 61 female students at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in summer 1996.
"Although a lot of medical research has focused on how to get women to take preventive health measures such as doing breast self-exams, none has looked at how sexual attitudes might influence this behavior," she said. "Health educators need to be aware that not everyone feels comfortable with nudity and sexuality, no matter how tastefully done, and it can possibly make a difference in whether or not breast self-exams are done."
The self-exam, which involves feeling the breasts for lumps, is highly recommended for women because early detection is critical for treatment of breast cancer, she said.
"Helweg-Larsen's research is important because it gives insight into why some women find it difficult to do breast self-examinations," said Meg Gerrard, a psychology professor at Iowa State University. "I think the findings generalize beyond breast self-exams to any kind of potentially embarrassing medical procedure, such as testicular self-exams or tests for colon cancer. So many diseases can be treated at an early stage, but if people are too embarrassed to test themselves or go to the doctor for an examination, they'll miss those early signs."
Using a standardized test called the Sexual Opinion Survey, Helweg-Larsen and Eric LaBranche, then a psychology graduate student then at the University of North Florida, identified one-third of the women who tested highest in erotophobia and compared them with one-third of the women who tested lowest in erotophobia. Half of these two groups of students then read a brochure containing text and pictures about breast self-exams; the other half read a brochure containing only text. Both groups then were surveyed about their reactions.
Complicating the issue is that women who were not erotophobic said they were more likely to understand the material and the importance of doing breast self-examinations if the brochure contained a picture, Helweg-Larsen said. The solution for health-care professionals may be to present visual information in the least sexualized way, with line drawings or cartoons instead of photographs of the bare breast, she said.
"So much of the information about breast self-exams is accompanied by photographs of how to press and feel on the breast," Helweg-Larsen said. "But seeing these pictures, especially if they are naked breasts, interferes with erotophobic women's ability to read the brochure and perhaps perform the procedure."
More erotophobics are women, probably because of the difference in the way men and women are socialized about sex, Helweg-Larsen said. "Men are supposed to want it and women are not," she said. "A woman who is interested in sex is a slut. A man who is interested in sex is a stud."
Even though the sexual revolution has given women greater freedom, some people still are ambivalent about sex, Helweg-Larsen said.
"Our culture sends extremely mixed messages about sex, with the popular media promoting, however unintentionally, promiscuous sex," she said. "Whether it's Melrose Place, soap operas or the movies, there is an enormous amount of sexual innuendo and nudity. At the same time, we try to send youngsters the message that sex is bad and if you have it at all, you should certainly wait until you're much older than you are now."
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