Recently, I was asked by a reporter to comment on a study titled, “Cash, Cars and Condoms: Economic Factors in Disadvantaged Adolescent Women’s Condom Use.” The purpose of the study was to “evaluate whether adolescent women who received economic benefits from their boyfriends were more likely never to use condoms.” My first question was, “Why is this question even being asked?” As I read the study, my questions grew—as did my dismay at reading this examination of girls’ condom use that asked no questions of the men whose penises would actually be covered by these condoms.
I do not think the reporter expected me to open up the can of evaluative whoop-ass I did on this study, so I wasn’t all that surprised when in the article my prolific rants were condensed down to a benign sentence or two admonishing the greater research community that more research needs to be done. There is much more to say about this new publication by respected researchers that yet again ends up blaming women for their male partners’ sexual behaviors and decision-making.
The researchers, who used data collected from African-American girls and women ages 15 to 21 living in a low-income area (we’ll come back to that in a sec), did indeed conclude that “adolescent women whose boyfriend is their primary source of spending money may not explicitly exchange risky sex for money, but their relationships may be implicitly transactional.”
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Is this conclusion truly publication-worthy? Of COURSE their relationships are transactional—every single relationship is transactional. And it doesn’t matter what one’s socioeconomic status or racial or ethnic background is; it doesn’t matter what the gender(s) of the partners in the relationship are. We all negotiate wants, needs, and desires with our partners. We make choices based on what we have and do not have. We communicate well, we communicate poorly—and we make decisions with which some will agree and others will disagree.
The difference here, however, is that what was being examined was whether the male partners of these young women provided them with money. And right there you have a not-so-veiled statement: low-income, African-American girls are whores. Think I’m exaggerating? Just read the key words beneath the article’s abstract, which include “sexual behavior; safe sex; adolescent” and “prostitution.”
What if we took a look at a middle-income, white couple in their early thirties? One partner or spouse works outside of the home, and the other stays at home and raises their 2.5 children. This is a transactional relationship. In a male-female relationship, we will most likely see the male partner playing the breadwinner role and the female partner staying home—although this has been shifting more over the years with more stay-at-home dads. The choice of who will work and who will stay home is a transaction between the partners. It is one that involves and reflects, among other things, each partner’s capacity to earn money. Yet no one would look at the stay-at-home mom in this example who accepts money from her partner to run their home as being “paid” by her spouse, and certainly no one would imply that any stay-at-home mom is a prostitute.
What the results of this study communicate is, “if these poor, African-American adolescents didn’t rely on their boyfriends for money, maybe they’d make better decisions about their sexual health.” This is a useless conclusion in relationships that involve far more complex issues than whether a boyfriend has money or a car. It is an equally useless measurement of safer sex practices, because girls and women do not use latex condoms, their male partners do. But this is far from the only study that examines girls’ use of one of the only male contraceptive and safer sex methods (“Women’s Condom Use Drops During First Year in College” is slated to be published in the next Journal of Sex Research). Each study that does this renews the misplaced blame on girls and women for not being stronger in insisting that their male partners use condoms—instead of helping us reaffirm that both partners in a relationship have equal responsibility in determining how best to avoid an STD and/or pregnancy.
“Boys will be boys,” these studies imply. “How can we expect them to make such a difficult decision like using condoms? They think with their penises, they don’t actually have brains.”
The messages are as offensive and degrading to boys and men as they are to girls and women. And as long as we continue to hold girls and women responsible for being the sexual and moral gatekeepers in their relationships with men we are putting an unfair burden on women and devaluing the capacity of men to be active participants in their relationships with women.
Those of us who actually work directly with young people know that myriad decisions relating to romantic and sexual relationships are often extremely complex. There are consequences for every single decision we make, some positive and some negative. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to be in a relationship and then to do everything they can to stay in that relationship—even if it is an unhealthy one. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to please other people. These are lifelong messages they receive up until the day they find themselves in a sexual relationship with a partner. And at that point, we turn around and wag a judgmental finger at them when they make a choice they have had zero support in making? Even if they have had sexuality education courses, even if they have been with partners who used condoms in the past, each relationship is a new experience. And if a girl’s male partner doesn’t use condoms, perhaps we should be asking him why not instead of asking her why she wasn’t able to convince him to do so.
All that has been reinforced here is a judgment against the girls in these relationships that if they only chose better partners—those who, perhaps, didn’t have stronger earning potentials or didn’t have cars—they wouldn’t have made the poor choice to have sex with men who did not wear a condom. We don’t have any learning about how we can more effectively reach boys and young men, how we can help men and women communicate more openly and effectively about safer sex—you know, actually helpful, applicable knowledge. Instead we have statistical significance and other high falutin’ language that doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans when you’re working with young people.
I know the work of several of the researchers and have long respected them. So I was particularly disappointed to read such a waste of brilliant minds stating the obvious; blatantly reinforcing stereotypes about girls (particularly, African-American girls, particularly African-American girls from lower-income areas); and validating the antiquated notion that we should be measuring how a male-female couple practices safer sex by examining the female partner’s choices and behaviors while completely ignoring the role her male partner plays in these decisions.
Research can be so, so valuable to our work with our service populations—but the time and funding to do meaningful research, particularly program evaluation, is particularly tight today. So to waste these limited resources on a study that reveals absolutely nothing new and provides no additional insight as to how to most effectively serve men and women seeking support and services is an absolute tragedy.