Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Misconceptions on contraception

Do you know how this stuff works?
This ongoing battle over the significance of contraception has come as quite a shock to those of us for whom it has been a normal, completely non-controversial part of life for so long. But perhaps it shouldn't be. Attacks on its importance have come in large part from people who don't know how contraception works, and that number will surely increase if measures like Utah's push to ban instruction on birth control, homosexuality, and any kind of extra-marital sex in public schools succeed and proliferate. What's especially worrisome is not just that Americans are stunningly ignorant of the varieties of contraception, their function, and their effectiveness, but that they aren't aware of their own ignorance:
Jenna had been living with her boyfriend for several months when he floated his own contraceptive theory. Jenna was taking her birth control pills continuously, meaning that she was skipping the pack’s built-in placebo pills in order to stop her period. At some point, her boyfriend discovered how she had managed to avoid the monthly ritual. “I was thinking you were just magical, like a unicorn,” he told her. “I mean, you hope one exists somewhere, but you never think you’ll get to live with one…a cool chick with no period drama that has sex all month long.” He added, “The guys thought I was making it up.” (Boyfriends could not be reached for comment for this story). 
According to a new study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, many young American men exhibit attitudes toward contraception that could best be described as “magical.” The study [PDF] surveyed American singles ages 18–29 about their perceptions about and use of contraception. Twenty-eight percent of young men think that wearing two condoms at a time is more effective than just one. Twenty-five percent think that women can prevent pregnancy by douching after sex. Eighteen percent believe that they can reduce the chance of pregnancy by doing it standing up. 
For the most part, men lagged behind women on the pregnancy prevention front. And when the study dipped into the realm of “female” forms of birth control, the gender divide intensified. In the study, 29 percent of men and 32 percent of women reported that they know “little or nothing about condoms.” When asked to rate their knowledge of birth control pills, 78 percent of men reported to be clueless, compared to 45 percent of women.
According to that study, most young people (the American singles in that age group) 
a) are sexually active (78% in the past year),
b) believe (94% male, 86% female) that pregnancy should be planned, and
c) say that it's important (88% male and 86% female) to avoid pregnancy right now.

Nonetheless, 19% no contraception at all and 24% use it inconsistently. 17% of women and 19% admitted that it is quite likely that they will engage in unprotected sex in the next year. 31% of women said that they had had an unplanned pregnancy. 

Why the discrepancy? A combination of ignorance (lack of information) and false belief (misinformation). Because these men and women did not receive sufficient instruction on contraception, they have relied on "folk" knowledge about how it works, which can make contraception seem unreliable at best and actually suspicious and harmful at worst:
Despite the myths, inflated fears, gaps in knowledge and more, nearly
all unmarried young adults say they have the knowledge they need to
avoid an unplanned pregnancy.  
• 90% believe (and 66% strongly believe) they have all the knowledge they
need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy. 
Moreover, many are fatalistic about fertility and pregnancy… 
• 38% of men and 44% of women believe “it doesn’t matter whether you use
birth control or not; when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen.”
• Hispanics (49%) and non-Hispanic blacks (50%) are more likely than nonHispanic whites (34%) to believe that birth control doesn’t matter much.  
…and many are suspicious of the whole birth control enterprise.  
• 31% overall (40% of non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics) agree with the
statement, “the government and public health institutions use poor and
minority people as guinea pigs to try out new birth control methods.”
• 32% overall (44% of non-Hispanic blacks and 46% of Hispanics) agree with
the statement, “the government is trying to limit blacks and other minority
populations by encouraging the use of birth control.”
The study is full of other disturbing statistics, which you should definitely read for yourself. The take-home message, I think, is that young Americans are woefully misinformed about contraception, and even though the study says that only 13% of this group believe it to be morally wrong, misunderstanding how contraception works and how well it works can feed into the creation of beliefs about who needs contraception, and how much, and why. Erroneous beliefs that foster prejudice and, worse, grossly mistaken policy. Like in Arizona, where legislators are trying to make it possible for your employer to know whether you're using birth control and, if they have a problem with that, fire you for it.

One can't help but wonder how well they understand birth control. My hunch is: not well at all.  

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