This week the CDC released another study based on data from the latest NSFG. Once again, this survey suggests that when it comes to sexual behaviors teens are, for the most part, very responsible. And while that seems to surprise a lot of adults, I’d like to point out that I’ve been saying this for many years.
This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released another report in its series on Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth. Like the previous reports, this one is based on analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) 2006‒2010 which asked over 22,000 men and women ages 15 to 44 about their sexual behavior. The sample included 4,662 teenagers. The NSFG provides a snapshot of current behavior as well as an opportunity to compare behavior over time as it is conducted regularly. Once again, this survey suggests that when it comes to sexual behaviors teens are, for the most part, very responsible. And while that seems to surprise a lot of adults, I’d like to point out that I’ve said this many, many times.
The most impressive news involves contraception. Specifically, the study found that 78 percent of never-married, sexually active females ages 15 to 19 and 85 percent of never-married, sexually active males ages 15 to 19 used contraception the first time they had sex. In addition, 86 percent of never-married, sexually active females and 93 percent of never-married, sexually active males ages 15 to 19 used a method of contraception the last time they had sex in the three months prior to the survey. Condoms remain the most popular method with 68 percent of all never-married, sexually active teens reporting using this method at first sex and 75 percent of never-married, sexually active teen males reporting having used a condom at last sex.
Teen contraception use is mainly unchanged from past surveys. While the authors note that fewer females seem to be using the pill they say this is made up for by those who are using newer hormonal methods such as injectables, the patch, or the ring. One place where a change was noted was in the percentage of males who reported using a condom the first time they had sex. In fact, 80 percent of never-married, sexually active young men reported using condoms their first time which is up a full 9 percentage points from 2002. We know from other research that teens who use contraception the first time are more likely to use it going forward so this data has implication past just that one night (or afternoon as the case may be). And, given that condoms are the only method of contraception that also protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) this good news has additional benefits as well.
The increase in condom use among boys made the headlines and seemed to shock some. Bill Alpert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy said: “It comes as a general surprise to people that teenagers in general and teen boys in particular can behave responsibly when it comes to making decisions about sex…I think it is surprising.” I take it not as a surprise but as proof that we’ve been underestimating young people and young men in particular, for years. Not only can they behave responsibly, they are doing so and they’ve been doing so for many years; remember 93 percent of sexually active teen males used contraception at last intercourse and this was unchanged from prior surveys. Sure this is not the 100 percent we would love to see but it is a very good starting place. Guys have been behaving responsibly for a long time but we unfairly continue to look at them and portray them has horny, sex-addled, and not dependable. It’s our turn to change our behavior.
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In other news, there is no other news. Very little else changed. The researchers noted that between 1988 and 2002 there were significant improvements in those behaviors that can lead to unplanned pregnancies and STDs. Specifically, in those years there was an overall decline in the number of teens who became sexually active and an increase in those who used contraception when they did. In recent years, however, these numbers have leveled off. This suggests that there is still work to be done in educating teenagers about sexual behavior, STDs, unplanned pregnancy, and the importance of protection.
As always, though, I think we have to start by giving them credit for what they are already doing right.
A nursing home understands that its elderly residents are still sexual beings; New York City is amping up its youth sexual health outreach with emojis of eggplants and monkeys; and if forced to choose between eating and sex, a good number of people pick food.
This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
Sex Is Not Just for the Young
The New York Times recently profiled a nursing home with a sex-positive attitude for its residents. The Hebrew Home at Riverdale adopted its “sexual expression policy” in 1995 after a nurse walked in on two residents having sex. She asked her boss, Daniel Reingold, what she should do. He said, “Tiptoe out and close the door.”
Reingold, the president of RiverSpring Health (which runs the nursing home), said that aging includes a lot of loss—from the loss of spouses and friends to the loss of independence and mobility. But he believes the loss of physical touch and intimacy does not have to be part of getting older.
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The policy acknowledges that residents have the right to seek out and engage in consensual acts of sexual expression with other residents or with visitors. The policy ensures that staff understand that their role is not to prevent sexual contact. In fact, some of the staff like to play cupid for residents. Audrey Davison, an 85-year-old resident, said that the staff let her sleep in her boyfriend’s room, and one aide even made them a “Do Not Disturb” sign for his door. She added: “I enjoyed it and he was a very good lover.”
Still, there are complicating factors to dating in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities. Some residents may be married to people who don’t live in the facility, and others may be suffering from memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s, which can raise issues of consent. Hebrew Home’s policy states that Alzheimer’s patients can give consent under certain circumstances.
Though not all nursing homes have formal policies about sex, many acknowledge that their residents are or want to be sexually active and are working to help residents have a safe and consensual experience. Dr. Cheryl Phillips, a senior vice president at LeadingAge, an organization which represents nursing homes and others who provide elder care, also told the New York Times that this generation of older adults is different: “They’ve been having sex—that’s part of who they are—and just because they’re moving into a nursing home doesn’t mean they’re going to stop having sex.”
Of course, not all residents are lucky in love when they move in. Hebrew Home says that about 40 of its 870 residents are in relationships. Staff are trying to help the others. They set up happy hours, a prom, and have started a dating service called G-Date (for “Grandparent Date”). So far it hasn’t been too successful in making matches, but the staff is convinced that someday their efforts will pay off with a wedding.
Can Emojis Connect Youth to Sexual Health Services?
New York City’s public hospital system, known as Health & Hospitals, provides confidential sexual health services—including pregnancy tests, contraception, and tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—for young people 12 and older regardless of their ability to pay, immigration status, or sexual orientation. Health & Hospitals served 152,000 patients last year, but its leaders think it could do even more if more young people were aware of the services offered.
The emojis are expected to reach 2.4 million young people in New York City through social media including Facebook and Instagram. The emojis include an eggplant, a monkey covering his eyes, and, of course, some birds and bees. The online ads read, “Need someone to talk to about ‘it’?”
When young people click on the emojis, they will be taken to the Health & Hospitals youth website, which explains available services and how to find accessible providers.
Dr. Ram Raju, president and CEO of NYC Health & Hospitals, said in a press release that the organization provides nonjudgmental services to youth: “Whether it’s birth control, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception or depression screening, the public health system has affordable services in local community health centers, where we speak your language, understand your culture and respect your privacy.”
But some worry that these emojis are confusing. Elizabeth Schroeder, a sex educator and trainer, told the New York Times that while she applauded the effort, she questioned if the images chosen were the best to convey the message.
We here at This Week in Sex have to agree and admit the images confuse us as well. The monkey is cute, but what does it have to do with STDs?
Choosing Between Appetites, Many Pick Food
Good food or good sex? These two sources of pleasure are rarely at odds with each other, but if they ever are, which would you choose?
A new survey, by advertising agency Havas Worldwide, posed this very question to almost 12,000 adults in 37 countries across the globe. The results show that about half of adults (46 percent of men and 51 percent of women) believe that food can be as pleasurable as sex. And one-third would choose a great dinner at a restaurant rather than sex; women were more likely to make this choice (42 percent compared with 26 percent of men).
Millennials were also more likely to make this choice than those slightly older Gen-Xers (35 percent to 30 percent). Of course, it’s hard to tell whether this says more about their sex lives or their eating habits.
Unique military gender politics that make it hard for some servicewomen to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.
At the beginning of May, pharmaceutical giant Allergan announced that, in partnership with nonprofit Medicines360, it would begin offering its new intrauterine device (IUD) Liletta at a reduced price to military treatment facilities and veterans hospitals across the United States. The company would also support “an educational effort to raise contraception awareness among healthcare providers treating U.S. military service women,” according to its press release.
Military personnel and medical professionals agree Allergan’s initiative represents an important step toward expanding access to the IUD, which along with other long-acting reversible contraceptives (like injections) are particularly well suited to the demands of military training and deployment schedules. But this push to increase IUD use can’t be fully understood outside the context of the unique challenges and stigmas facing women of reproductive age in the U.S. military (who numbered just under 200,000 as of 2011, the latest available data obtained via FOIA by Ibis Reproductive Health).
Despite theoretically having access to a wide variety of contraceptive options, women in the military still report higher rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian peers, and it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly why. What is clear is that the unique military gender politics that make it hard for some women to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability, including Allergan’s, can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.
Nearly every time a U.S. military branch changes policies to include more women, critics raise the old argument that allowing women into the service, particularly in combat roles, will lead to sex between soldiers and thereby distract from the mission. Because of that, the military generally prohibits sex during deployments between service members not married to each other (exact policies vary across the branches and across units, and some are less strict). Taken as a whole, the U.S. military’s policy basically amounts to an abstinence-only approach, with women shouldering nearly all of the risk and blame when soldiers do decide to have sex on deployment.
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Bethany Saros, who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old in 2002, faced this blame head-on when she became pregnant by a fellow soldier during a 2007 tour in Iraq.
Although condoms were available to soldiers at her deployment site, Saros did not use birth control. Her decision not to end the pregnancy meant her deployment was over, and Saros recalls meeting several other pregnant women in Kuwait while they all waited to get shipped back. “I felt like a pariah, and I think the other girls did too,” she said.
“It’s not like anyone does this on purpose,” Saros explained. “The fathers of these babies, they don’t get any problems, and they were screwing around just as we were.”
Across all branches of service, pregnant women are typically not allowed to serve on deployments, and, though the length of time varies by branch, women are not allowed to deploy in the six to 12 months after they give birth. According to spokespeople from each of the branches, the reasoning behind the policies is to protect servicewomen and give them the time they need to recover from birth. All of the women I spoke with for this piece told me that soldiers—both male and female—often believe a woman who gets pregnant right before or during a deployment is simply trying to avoid her work.
“The first thing someone talked about when a woman got pregnant was that she was trying to get out of a deployment,” said Lauren Zapf, a former Naval officer, mental health clinician, and fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. “Whereas if men announce that they’re going to have a baby, there’s a lot of backslapping and congratulations.”
According to Ibis Reproductive Health’s analysisof Department of Defense data, about 11 percent of active-duty military women reported an unintended pregnancy in 2008 and 7 percent reported an unintended pregnancy in 2011—in both years, this was far more than the general population. Younger, less educated, nonwhite women were much more likely to become pregnant unintentionally, as were those who were married or living with a partner, according to Ibis. Contrary to military lore, the pregnancy rates did not differ between those women who had deployed and those who didn’t during that time, the study found.
It remains unclear why exactly military women have higher reported rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian counterparts, but one reason has likely been their inconsistent access to birth control and limited access to abortion services. As with most institutions, there’s a difference between official policy and what happens on a day-to-day basis on military bases and in medical exam rooms. Just because most military branches officially require routine birth control consultations doesn’t mean women will always get them, according to Ibis researcher Kate Grindlay, who is one of very few independent researchers looking into this issue.
“One of the challenges that we found [in our research] was that these things were not being done in a consistent way,” Grindlay said. “Some providers having these conversations in a routine way, some weren’t.”
Access to birth control—and the conversations that lead up to it—has improved greatly for military women in the past 20 years. Elizabeth McCormick, a former Black Hawk pilot who served in the Army from 1994 to 2001, recalled that “no one talked about birth control” in any of her pre-deployment medical events in the 1990s. By contrast, some of the women I spoke with who served more recently said they didn’t have issues getting the care they needed.
However, in a 2010 Ibis survey of deployed women, 59 percent of respondents said they hadn’t discussed contraception with a military health-care provider before deployment and 41 percent said they had difficulty obtaining the birth control refills they needed while away from home. Servicewomen also reported being denied an IUD because they had not yet had children, even though nulliparous women can use the devices.
These inconsistencies are part of the problem Allergan says it hopes to address with its education efforts for military health-care providers. The company hasn’t explicitly said what those efforts will look like.
Another part of the problem, according to former Marine Corps officer and Cobra helicopter pilot Kyleanne Hunter, might be cultural. Conversations with military medical providers likely present another major barrier to proper contraceptive care because most military doctors are not only men, but also officers, who, outside the context of a hospital exam room, can give orders that must be respected.
Young female enlisted service members who have internalized the military’s rigid power structures might be reluctant to speak honestly and openly about reproductive care, posited Hunter, who’s currently a University of Denver PhD candidate studying the national security impact of integrating women into western militaries. She said the same dynamic often prevents women from coming forward after they have been sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.
“It adds one more layer to what’s already an uncomfortable conversation,” Hunter said.
When Bethany Saros returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, after leaving Iraq for her pregnancy, a conversation with a male doctor solidified her decision to quit the Army altogether.
“I had to go through a physical, and there was a Marine doctor, and he said, ‘Was there enough room on the plane for all the pregnant ladies that came back?’” she told me, still taken aback by the incident.
Grindlay said efforts like Allergan’s to increase the use of IUDs in the military are “very beneficial” to servicewomen. She also applauded a provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to require standardized clinical guidelines for contraceptive care across the armed forces. Under the new provisions, women in the armed forces must receive counseling on the “full range of methods of contraception provided by health care providers” during pre-deployment health care visits, visits during deployment, and annual physical exams.
But there’s still work to be done in order for the military to provide full access to reproductive health care, particularly when it comes to abortion. Tricare, the military’s health and insurance provider, only covers abortions “if pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life is at risk,” and certain countries in which the military operates ban the procedure altogether.
In a sampling of 130 online responses for a medication abortion consultation service reviewed by Ibis in 2011, several military women reported considered using “unsafe methods” to try to terminate a pregnancy themselves, according to Grindlay. One of the women, a 23-year-old stationed in Bahrain, said she had been turned away by five clinics and had contemplated taking “drastic measures.”
According to the 2011 Ibis report, many women sought abortions so that they could continue their military tour. Others feared a pregnancy would otherwise ruin their careers.
Virginia Koday, a former Marine Corps electronics technician who left the service in 2013, said in a phone interview that women can face losing their rank or getting charged for violating military policy if they become pregnant overseas. “Getting pregnant in Afghanistan is good cause to terminate your own pregnancy without anyone finding out,” she said.
“The unspoken code is that a good soldier will have an abortion, continue the mission, and get some sympathy because she chose duty over motherhood,” wrote Bethany Saros in a 2011 Salon piece about her unplanned pregnancy.
For these women, one act of unprotected sex had the potential to derail their career. For the men, it was just a night of fun.
Kyleanne Hunter said that while she doesn’t have a “whole lot of sympathy” for women who become pregnant on deployments (they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place, she argues), she disagrees with the double standard that allows the men involved to escape punishment.
“Both parties need to be held exactly to the same accountability standards,” said Hunter. “If the woman is punished, then whoever she is involved with should be punished a well, because it takes two. She’s not alone in it. There’s no immaculate conception going on there.”