Risk-adjusted returns

One more thought on the whole safer sex thing: in finance, investors look not at returns, but at risk-adjusted returns. In other words, the question isn’t “how much is investment x likely to make me if all goes well?” but rather, “What is the range of outcomes I possibly could achieve with investment x, and what is the likelihood of each of those outcomes?” It’s just not possible to decide (well) whether to make a particular investment without understanding – in addition to the expected return – the potential upside, the potential downside, and the likelihood of each.

Most of what I’ve been writing about safer sex is really about this very question, my basic belief that we don’t have any sensible way of thinking about, talking about, not just safety, but acceptable levels of risk. We think and talk about “safety” and “risk” instead in binary terms. We tend to think of activities and behaviors as either “safe” or “risky.” We’re far less nuanced in thinking about acceptable levels of risk. And, we tend to infuse our assessments of risk with all sorts of other considerations – moral considerations, cultural considerations, considerations of convenience.

A common example of this away from the realm of sex is the way many of us feel more nervous flying than we feel driving, even though driving is much more dangerous, by any measure. According to an article in USA Today, each year one in 6,800 passengers dies in a car crash. This is as compared to one in 1.6 million air passengers.

Are we so bad at assessing these relative risks because when we drive we believe (erroneously) that we are in control? Is it because we drive far more often than we fly? Because car crashes don’t even make the news, whereas plane crashes dominate it for days? Because far more people survive car crashes than survive plane crashes? Because when we go through an airport, we are systematically made to feel powerless, alienated, culminating in boarding an uncomfortable confined space which we can’t get out of until permitted to do so?

No doubt, it’s all these things, and more.

With regard to sex, I feel woefully uneducated. All of the thoughtful positions and opinions I’ve laid out over the last few days are fairly well informed, to be sure. But I have no idea, honestly, how my sexual risks compare to the risks I take with cars. I think I know, but I don’t, really.

L suggested to me the other day that I do a little analysis, a little demonstration of relative risks, and maybe I will, but it sounds like a lot of work.

(If any of you has data that might be useful for such an analysis, I’d love it.)

Wouldn’t it be cool to look at a chart illustrating, say, incidence of fatal car crashes vs. incidence of injuries in car crashes vs. incidence of treatable STIs vs. incidence of chronic STIs vs. incidence of HIV, adjusted in some way to reflect the frequency with which we engage in each of the “risky” activities?

I think so….

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