Allison, 26, and her boyfriend were having sex—an activity they had engaged in many times over the six months they had been dating—when her contraceptive vaginal ring fell right out of her vagina. Her boyfriend paused. He developed a sudden concern over the efficacy of the couple’s method of birth control. “He was like, ‘Oh, no. How is it going to catch my semen?’” Allison recalls.
For about a year now, Allison has used the NuvaRing to prevent pregnancy. Three weeks out of the month, the clear, flexible plastic ring sits in Allison’s vagina and releases hormones into her bloodstream that prevent her from ovulating. It does not “catch” anybody’s semen.
“He played it off as a joke,” says Allison of her boyfriend’s bizarre interpretation of her birth control. “But in the tone of his voice, that honest worry was there. Part of him was thinking, ‘What does this ring actually do?’”
Allison is a veteran witness to contraception awareness syndrome. “I was dating a guy in college who knew that I was on the birth control pill. Of course, he was concerned about me getting pregnant,” says Allison. “So he said, ‘You know, you should take four or five of these a day—just take as many as you need to,’” she says.
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.
With a majority of young men generally unknowledgeable about hormonal birth control—and nearly half of young women equally stumped—men sometimes don’t figure out the basics until they think they may have impregnated someone, or their penis feels something weird. “I dated a girl with a NuvaRing, while I didn’t know she had one,” says a 22-year-old Arlington resident who didn’t discover how the couple was preventing baby-making until his penis was already well inside her vagina. “I found out the physical way, when I felt the alien object. I immediately recoiled in fear, asking what was wrong. It was frightening. Then she told me her birth control was a ring in her vagina, which I had never heard of.” He demanded the evidence. “She retrieved it—which is a sight to see—and showed it to me, put it back, and we continued,” he says. “I feel like girls should tell people.”
When Allison’s boyfriend expressed concern with the efficacy of her vaginal ring, she told him all about it. But even between two adults, the subject inspired some awkwardness. “The conversation wasn’t exactly free-flowing,” Allison says. “I’ve been dating since high school, and it feels like the men that I date now have a very similar idea of birth control as the men I dated who were high school students,” says Allison. “They get a preliminary idea in sex ed, and then there’s not really any education after that. Nothing ever changes.”
In addition to staging teach-ins, women are also responsible for shouldering the physical, emotional, and financial responsibilities for pregnancy prevention. Pap smears, STI tests, and gynecological sessions about their contraceptive options—that’s just the tip of it for the sexually active woman. In order to keep their birth control subscription fresh, they have to repeat that process every year. Their male sex partners are under no such requirements. As Salon noted last year, women have 11 methods of contraception from which to choose; men have two—condom and vasectomy. And even if men did have additional reliable birth control options, many women wouldn’t trust them to use them correctly. In a comment on the Salon article, one woman wrote, “I love my husband more than anything in the world but I would not place that responsibility on him because if the BC failed and he was responsible for it I would kill him then he would be dead and I would be having a child while in prison.” Perhaps it is no mystery why some men confine their responsibility to forms of birth control which relate directly to their own genitalia.
Gustav Seestedt, 23, says that birth control pills are the form of contraception he has “the most indirect experience with.” He has no idea how they work. “I thought it, uh, controlled, uh… I actually don’t know, now that I think about it,” he says. “Oh, man, I thought it had something to do with hormonal control, but that doesn’t seem right at all. That sounds pretty awful. I thought it, uh, somehow killed fertility with like chemicals and stuff,” he says. The ring, however, strikes Seestedt as a superior option. “I thought that was pretty fine, because, from what I understood, it was kind of a low-cost way of doing it, and it wasn’t really…I like it because chemical pills and stuff are kind of weird, [but the ring] was kind of placed inside, and…you know what I mean? It just kind of did its thing, you know?”
To some, the male indifference to birth control can be attributed to a juvenile disregard for all things related to the place in which the vaginal ring “does its thing.” We live in a country where heterosexual heartthrob Robert Pattinson feels comfortable announcing to Details magazine, “I really hate vaginas. I’m allergic to vagina.” Where tech nerds everywhere let out a collective titter over new Apple device the “iPad,” because it sounds kind of like a thing women use when they’re on their periods. Where Judd Apatow has built a film career out of turning extended vagina jokes into blockbusters.
“I definitely think that the inability to understand birth control goes back to the woman’s period,” says Allison. Months after the vaginal ring incident, Allison’s boyfriend remained confused about the specifics of her menstrual cycle. “The other day, I was on my period, and I took out my tampon before I went into the shower,” she says. “My boyfriend was like, ‘Wait: But you just took your tampon out. Can you go into the shower like that?’”
Allison responded to her boyfriend’s question with more questions. “Does he think that the second I take out my tampon, it’s just blood, blood everywhere?” she wondered. “That if I don’t plug it up with this cotton thing every moment, all hell will break loose?” Her boyfriend did not elaborate. “He was just kind of like, ‘Never mind,’” says Allison. “I think he understood the absurdity of his comment. But he was making an honest attempt to learn about something he doesn’t really know about.”
VIDEO: Men Explaining Birth Control.
Photo by outcast104, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0