Commentary Contraception

Why Are So Many Young Adults Cavalier About Birth Control?

Amanda Marcotte

Forty percent of adults ages 18-29 don't really believe birth control matters, and you'll get pregnant when fate decrees. They're underestimating their fertility and the effectiveness of contraception. The real question is why?

Recent news that the teen birth rate is down due to increased contraceptive use might make some of us believe that attitudes about contraception are improving among younger people, and that we don’t really have to worry about them. Unfortunately recent research published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health suggests we have a long road ahead when it comes to people in their twenties really having the tools to take care of their reproductive health and futures. Researchers interviewed a cross-sample of 18 to 29 year-old respondents and found that widespread myths about contraception and fertility were incredibly common with this age group.

Researchers found that women who had a good understanding of how contraception works and how effective it is were far more likely to use contraception regularly. Unfortunately, understanding of the effectiveness of contraception was shockingly low. More than half of the male and female respondents had low scores on a test of their contraception knowledge, and 60 percent underestimated the effectiveness of contraception. Forty percent seemed to believe that birth control was inevitably going to fail them, almost as if there’s some magical force that decides for them when they’re going to get pregnant, instead of basic biology. As previous research has shown, many people continue to labor under the illusion that their avoidance of pregnancy is more about luck — fate even — than about effective use of contraception. They also tend to underestimate how fertile they are without it. Because of this, they run a high risk of getting pregnant without wanting to, because they really underestimate how much control they really have over the situation.

Nona Willis Aronowitz described the situation beautifully:

A full 40 percent of them agreed that birth control really doesn’t matter—”when it is your time to get pregnant,” they agreed, “it will happen.” In other words, a significant number of young people’s “commitment” to remaining childless involves crossing their fingers, not wearing condoms or swallowing pills.

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Indeed, on Dan Savage’s new MTV show “Savage U”, the audience got to see this attitude on full display when Dan interviewed a young man in a health clinic about his use of contraception, only to find out that this young man and his girlfriend used nothing. Dan was surprised, as was I, but these numbers clarify things. This young couple seems to be fairly normal in believing pregnancy is somehow a matter of fate and that birth control just provides the illusion of control. This is a message that the anti-choice movement promotes heavily, both in making false claims about the failure rates of contraception and underestimating how frequent pregnancy is if you don’t use birth control. It seems that message has an audience.

In reality, of course, modern contraception methods are very effective, and pregnancy is a biological process, not a magical process that results from fate.

While these depressing numbers suggest some policy responses — especially beefing up sex education in public schools and on college campuses — it also suggests there’s deeper cultural problems afoot in the U.S. I think it’s a combination of two factors. One is that strong streak of anti-intellectualism and suspicion of science in our culture. The other is the sin-and-punishment frame that’s so frequently applied to sexuality. Both of these problems are exacerbated by a Christian right that willfully exploits these tendencies to deprive people, especially women, of control over their own sexualities and lives.

I probably don’t need to work too hard to convince you that this country has serious problems accepting scientific facts, but a short list of evidence: Anti-vaccination nuttery, homeopathy, global warming denialism, creationism. All these have high levels of popularity, or at least some amount of influence over ordinary people. This kind of suspicion of science affects how people understand the effectiveness of contraceptio. To make it worse, people’s understanding of how these things works relies so much on word of mouth. The problem is that a lot of people who misuse or don’t use contraception and then get pregnant claim to family and friends that they were using contraception, which reinforces the false belief that it’s less effective than it is and that you can’t stop fate when it comes to getting pregnant.

The second reason that there’s an overemphasis on this “fate” narrative is that Americans still just aren’t completely comfortable yet with sex for pleasure, especially when it’s women having it. Hard to believe in a culture drenched with porn, but yet there we are. The notion that a woman can go for years, decades, even her entire life having all the sex she wants without necessarily having to pay for it with an unintended pregnancy doesn’t make sense in the sin-and-punishment narrative that lingers in American attitudes about sex.

Better education can help, of course. If people are presented with the correct information at the right age, they are more likely to retain and understand it. But information without illustration is notoriously hard for people to fully understand and remember. Perhaps one way to help would be to use more story-based methods of education when it comes to teaching about contraception. Use examples of women who were able to avoid unintended pregnancy, and who were therefore able to have babies when they made an active choice to do so. Modeling alternatives to “leave it to fate” would be worth the citation of a million statistics about contraception effectiveness.

But ultimately, we as a culture have to change our thinking about science and sexuality. We have to stop seeing science as a subversive force or putting more emphasis on word of mouth information than on scientific information. We also need to stop seeing sex as dirty and sinful. Until we stop seeing sex as a sin, the idea that women should “pay” for it with unintended pregnancy will linger. 

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