Writer for the Washington City Paper Amanda Hess took to the streets to interview men on their knowledge of birth control methods for her column The Sexist. She turned up much confusion, some blind optimism and a whole lot of ignorance. I was particularly intrigued by the guy who got so uncomfortable with his own description of the birth control pill as ‘hormonal control’ that he freaked himself in to some kind of feminist epiphany. But as we all laugh hard at the men’s answers, perhaps take a moment to think. How much you really know about how the Pill, the patch, the ring or the emergency contraceptive pill works?
A survey by The National Campaign To Prevent Teen And Unplanned Pregnancy looked into the ‘misconceptions’ and ‘magical thinking’ surrounding birth control. The report showed 30% of those asked claimed to know ‘little or nothing’ about condoms and 63% felt similarly about the birth control pill. 56% had not heard of the contraceptive implant. Of the young men and women who said it was very important that they avoid pregnancy at this time in their lives, 34% thought it was still likely that they would have unprotected sex in the near future. The findings reminded me of a UK study published last year that discovered widespread acceptance of contraceptive myths - myths like using Coca-Cola and crisps as oral contraceptives and chicken skin being a handy alternative to condoms.
According to the organization’s research, lack of knowledge about contraceptive methods leads to many young people being worryingly casual about their contraception use. I was struck by this, as in my own experience ignorance led me to double and triple-up on methods. Suspicion about the effectiveness of the Pill or condoms and lack of understanding of the way methods work is shown in the survey to produce a nonchalant attitude towards protection. But I - and many women I know - have used the fear that comes from this confusion as reason to be beyond paranoid and say, for example, use the Pill and condoms, take the emergency contraceptive when panicked and then buy up packs of pregnancy tests, stressing for weeks. I think the lack of understanding about how methods work is surely linked to a lack of knowledge about how women’s bodies work. If we don’t know how, when or why we are able to get pregnant then we are less likely to understand how to prevent ourselves getting pregnant. Our misconceptions about contraception are intrinsically tied to our misconceptions about our bodies.
Until I decided to get myself intensively educated about preventing pregnancy, what I took in from my friends, TV and visits to the doctor helped me to be just about as knowledgeable as I am about how the Internet works (not very). Just as I use the Internet all the time and rely on it for some very important elements of my life without having a clue about how it even gets words on a screen, I used the birth control pill for more than a decade without thinking about how it worked beyond what I got from a ten-minute consultation and a couple of magazine articles. We know we can’t rely on major news channels to give us the full picture of world events, we have to go looking for alternative sources of information. Well, when it comes to contraception it’s necessary to be just as proactive in gathering the info we need to know. When faced with statistics like those in this survey, it’s clear that many of us do not have this information. Comprehensive, holistic education needs an investment of money and time that Planned Parenthood and other outreach organizations are not likely to see as long as the moral conservatives have their stronghold on the government. Until that changes, it’s on us to educate ourselves and encourage others to do the same.