Did the word "sex" catch your attention?
Now on to more bucolic matters.
Last weekend, I went for a bicycle ride from my house to the Sapphire Mountains, about fifteen miles away. I hadn't been up this route for a few weeks, and in the intervening time, much of the thick winter snowpack had melted, at least at lower elevations. The grass was green, although the trees weren't yet budding. The water was getting higher: we haven't reached peak snowmelt yet, which will happen in mid-May, but the water had broken its chains of ice, and was rushing through the high pine-covered canyons. A quite attractive scene, and one that makes me glad to be living in a place where I can bicycle to such locations.
Until I looked down, and saw a tick slowly crawling up my shirt. This was a deer tick, species Dermacentor, the most common type of tick in my area. It is also the tick that is the vector for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (or RMSF, for short). Ticks are also, in both meanings of the word, creepy. They move slowly and deliberately, their motions an uncanny valley, somewhat robotic. Also, because they can be quite subtle in their presence, they lead to a paranoia about their presence that may or may not be delusional. The tick fell off my clothing, and when I returned home I laundered all my clothing and took a long shower, with no signs of other ticks.
My entire time off the road and walking in the woods was only ten minutes or so: and in that time, I didn't walk through any undergrowth or tall grass. I just walked around by the side of a stream for five minutes, and in that time a tick crawled on to me. April through June are the height of deer tick season in Montana, and as often as not, when I've been in the mountains in those months, I've had a tick on me. None of them seem to have affixed themselves on me, which is good. Not all ticks carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and even when they do they need to feed for a substantial time (several hours, at least) in order to transit enough of the bacteria to make a person sick.
But even with that, it is risky to walk in the woods, especially at high risk times. RMSF responds to treatment with antibiotics if it is diagnosed early enough, but it is still potentially fatal, and highly unpleasant even when treated. Overall, RMSF is not a very common disease in the United States: CDC figures put its prevalence rate at about 20 cases per million people. But statistics aren't much of a shield for people who are actively involved in risk factors for the disease: because lightning strikes are rare, doesn't mean it is safe to be waving a golf club above your head in a thunderstorm, and because RMSF is rare, it doesn't mean it is safe to be walking in a tick-heavy area during a tick-heavy season. It is hard to figure the chances of mortality or serious illness from RMSF, but even my 10 minutes in the mountains presented a non-trivial risk to me.
I apologize to all the people who wanted to hear about unprotected sex and instead had to hear about parasites and debilitating illness. Now we can get to the sex part:
People are well aware of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and the steps needed to curtail them. And I don't at all want to minimize the fact that these steps are very important. But I also find it interesting that because our society still attaches morality, or at least a sense of shame, to sex, that the risks of sexual behavior and the guilt placed on those who don't conform to safe practices are much greater than people who take risks in other areas. While there have been campaigns to raise awareness of lyme disease and tips on how to prevent it, these have never reached the force of moral imperatives that the call for safe sex has. And I am not trying to suggest that the diseases are comparable: HIV is, for most people, still incurable, even if treated. RMSF is rare, and can be treated.
Yet even so, I think that the difference in people's reactions can't be attributed to only the technical difference in the chance of infection or the treatment options. It is a matter of deviancy versus risk. For all the changes in our society with regards to sex during the "sexual revolution", enjoying sex still has a tacit air of deviancy to it, and because it is still somewhat of a deviant behavior, the risks associated with it can be exaggerated. On the other hand, outdoor activities, while they carry many risks (including other health problems and also injuries), are seen as non-deviant, and indeed as productive and socially positive. And so the risks associated with them are downplayed: even if people realize the risks, a person exposing themselves to those risks is not morally compromised the same way that a person exposing themselves to risks from sexual activities is. The fault lies in the ticks, not in themselves.
Of course, I can't write a blanket statement of what "society believes". There are exceptions and subtleties to this, as well as technicalities to how dangerous and contagious diseases are. But the difference in ways that people respond to different risks does make me think that when it comes to matters of diseases and other health problems, most people look at the risks through lenses thickly colored with beliefs about deviancy.