The XX Factor

Young People Don’t Know Jack About Birth Control

I have long-standing issues with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy , but I have to tip my hat to them for their hard work researching attitudes and beliefs about contraception in young people. They’ve done a bang-up job showing that high unplanned pregnancy rates in the United States have a lot to do with sexual ignorance, and they’ve made the case that young people need to learn to speak more freely about sex in order to learn more. (Though the conservative bent of NCPTUP comes through in the report when they imply it’s surprising that “only” 13 percent of young people think contraception is morally wrong. That number seems alarmingly high to me.) They’ve also created an occasion for high comedy in laughing at the way that many modern people view technology as a kind of magic.

Amanda Hess at the Sexist had a blast chronicling the unfortunate lack of understanding exhibited by young people, especially young men, of how contraceptive devices and medications even work, telling a story of a young man who thought the Nuva Ring was a kind of fancy diaphragm and another who thought his girlfriend’s birth-control-pill-induced lack of menstruation simply meant that the gods had blessed him with a nonbleeding girlfriend, apparently unaware that his girlfriend was doing the blessing with the help of Big Pharma. Hess was so amused (and rightfully so) that she made a video of men trying to explain how birth control works and failing miserably. If you don’t laugh, ladies, you’ll cry, so enjoy it as much as you can.

On thing that’s startling is that young people don’t think the birth control pill works and have sex anyway. Most young people have sex, but over 40 percent of them think that they’ve got a one in two chance of getting pregnant on the birth control pill that year. ( It’s one in 100 if they take it correctly, eight in 100 if they do it the haphazard way many do. ) It makes you wonder how those taking it imagine that they’re skating by without getting pregnant, but the report has the answer, which is that 59 percent of women and 47 percent of men suspect that they’re infertile. They may not think the birth control pill works, but they do think it’ll give you cancer and ruin your figure. (Not according to science.) It makes you wonder if some of these folks believe they get sunburns because elves paint them with painful red paint when they sleep, and not because they went out in the sun without sunblock. It also makes you wonder why kids who think so little of the pill take it anyway, and I suspect they’re just hoping there’s an off chance that they’re as wrong as they actually are.

This report should be the fatal blow to the argument for abstinence-only, since what they’ve discovered is that many young people think pregnancy prevention is about praying and luck, and that actual contraception has very little effect on your fertility. But they have sex anyway. The abstinence-only argument has always been that if you scared kids enough about pregnancy, hammered them with scary statistics about contraception failure rates, or concealed the reality of contraception from them completely, they’d be too scared to have sex. Turns out that kids who believe that they’ve got a 50 percent chance of getting pregnant by the year’s end have sex anyway. Even I would have thought fear of pregnancy would have curtailed that a little, but apparently nature’s pull is just that strong.