It’s easy to understand why so many programs and resources to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) focus on cisgender young women: They are the ones who tend to get pregnant.
But we cannot forget that young boys and men also feel the consequences of early parenthood or an STI.
I was recently reminded of the need to include boys in sexual education (and our tendency not to) by two recent studies, both published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The first examined young men’s knowledge about emergency contraception. The second study found that early fatherhood as well as nonresident fatherhood (fathers who do not live with their children) can be predicted by asking about attitudes toward pregnancy, contraception, and risky sexual behavior. Taken together, the new research sends a powerful message about the cost of missed opportunities to educate boys.
The first study was conducted at an adolescent medicine clinic in Aurora, Colorado. Young men ages 13 to 24 who visited the clinic between August and October 2014 were given a computerized survey about their sexual behavior, their attitudes toward pregnancy, and their knowledge of contraception. Most of the young men who took the survey (75 percent) had already been sexually active, and 84 percent felt it was important to prevent pregnancy. About two-thirds reported having spoken to a health-care provider about birth control other than condoms, and about three-quarters of sexually active respondents said they had spoken to their partner about birth control as well.
Yet, only 42 percent said that they knew anything about emergency contraception (EC), the only method of birth control that can be taken after intercourse. Though not meant to serve as long-term method of contraception, it can be very effective at preventing pregnancy if taken within five days of unprotected sex. Advance knowledge of EC can help ensure that young people understand the importance of using the method as soon as possible and know where to find it.
Still, the researchers were positive about the results. Study co-author Dr. Paritosh Kaul, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the proportion of boys and young men who had heard about EC: “That’s two-fifths of the boys, and … we don’t talk to boys about emergency contraception that often. The boys are listening, and health-care providers need to talk to the boys.”
Even though I tend to be a glass half-empty kind of person, I like Dr. Kaul’s optimistic take on the study results. If health-care providers are broadly neglecting to talk to young men about EC, yet about 40 percent of the young men in this first study knew about it anyway, imagine how many might know if we made a concerted effort.
The study itself was too small to be generalizable (only 93 young men participated), but it had some other interesting findings. Young men who knew about EC were more likely to have discussed contraception with both their health-care providers and their partners. While this may be an indication of where they learned about EC in the first place, it also suggests that conversations about one aspect of sexual health can spur additional ones. This can only serve to make young people (both young men and their partners) better informed and better prepared.
Which brings us to our next study, in which researchers found that better-informed young men were less likely to become teen or nonresident fathers.
For this study, the research team wanted to determine whether young men’s knowledge and attitudes about sexual health during adolescence could predict their future role as a father. To do so, they used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health), which followed a nationally representative sample of young people for more than 20 years from adolescence into adulthood.
The researchers looked at data from 10,253 young men who had completed surveys about risky sexual behavior, attitudes toward pregnancy, and birth control self-efficacy in the first waves of Add Health, which began in 1994. The surveys asked young men to respond to statements such as: “If you had sexual intercourse, your friends would respect you more;” “It wouldn’t be all that bad if you got someone pregnant at this time in your life;” and “Using birth control interferes with sexual enjoyment.”
Researchers then looked at 2008 and 2009 data to see if these young men had become fathers, at what age this had occurred, and whether they were living with their children. Finally, they analyzed the data to determine if young men’s attitudes and beliefs during adolescence could have predicted their fatherhood status later in life.
After controlling for demographic variables, they found that young men who were less concerned about having risky sex during adolescence were 30 percent more likely to become nonresident fathers. Similarly, young men who felt it wouldn’t be so bad if they got a young woman pregnant had a 20 percent greater chance of becoming a nonresident father. In contrast, those young men who better understood how birth control works and how effective it can be were 28 percent less likely to become a nonresident father.9:45]
The other two findings, however, suggest that this risk doesn’t start with behavior. It starts with the attitudes and knowledge that shape that behavior. For example, the results of the birth control self-efficacy scale suggest that young people who think they are capable of preventing pregnancy with contraception are ultimately less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy.
This seems like good news to me. It shows that young men are primed for interventions such as a formal sexuality education program or, as the previous study suggested, talks with a health-care provider.
Such programs and discussion are much needed; comprehensive sexual education, when it’s available at all, often focuses on pregnancy and STI prevention for young women, who are frequently seen as bearing the burden of risky teen sexual behavior. To be fair, teen pregnancy prevention programs have always suffered for inadequate funding, not to mention decades of political battles that sent much of this funding to ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Researchers and organizations have been forced to limit their scope, which means that very few evidence-based pregnancy prevention interventions have been developed specifically for young men.
Acknowledging this deficit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Adolescent Health have recently begun funding organizations to design or research interventions for young men ages 15 to 24. They supported three five-year projects, including a Texas program that will help young men in juvenile justice facilities reflect on how gender norms influence intimate relationships, gender-based violence, substance abuse, STIs, and teen pregnancy.
The availability of this funding and the programs it is supporting are a great start. I hope this funding will solidify interest in targeting young men for prevention and provide insight into how best to do so—because we really can’t afford to forget about the boys.