A friend recently sent me an online quiz sponsored by Marie Claire: "How Birth-Control Savvy Are You?" Intrigued, I followed the link. I had taken biology and health classes. I attend a private all-girls school where feminism is practically in the air students breathe. I know how the pill, the patch, and the ring work. "No biggie," as they say.
But as I took the quiz, I realized something terrifying. I found myself thoroughly insecure while answering just about every question.
Question number six read: "Which of the following birth control methods should you stay away from if you're prone to bladder infections?" I had no idea. Although I generally understood the mechanisms of various birth control methods, I did not understand the bits and pieces of choosing a method. I don't live in a hole; I'd learned about contraception in Sex Ed. To make matters worse, I knew, when I took the quiz, that bladder infections are common in women for anatomical reasons. And yet I was unprepared, dangerously so, to take charge of my sexual health.
I'm not alone. A study published two weeks ago in Contraception conducted by Callegari et al found that most women have inaccurate perceptions about the intrauterine device. According to Dr. Jeffrey Peipert, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University, inaccurate perceptions about the IUD can lead to underuse of "one of the most safe and effective methods" of birth control.
The lack of awareness goes beyond the IUD. Patients who attend the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City are given the chance to participate in a text-messaging question and answer program. A recent study of that education tool found that 42 percent of all questions sent were about contraception. This figure is shocking. There are sites such as GoAskAlice.com, which provide information on contraception that is versant in teenage lingo.
Furthermore, doctors are required to educate the patients they prescribe contraception for. Yet adolescents like me continue to have questions about the nuances of choosing and using contraception.
According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nine of 10 public school students in the U.S. receive sex education. But a little online research finds that one in three adolescents receives no formal instruction about contraception.
Consider the countless constitutional battles waged by parents about the inclusion of sex education curricula in public schools. Consider, too, what was at stake for people who fought for sex education: saliently, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Now, sex education is widespread -- and that fact is worth celebrating. But I am dismayed by how the fundamental issues that we sought to address remain unresolved. Currently, not one state has a law supporting comprehensive high school sex education that teaches both abstinence and contraception.
In neglecting to thoroughly educate adolescents on contraception, we neglect to provide all the support women and men need to plan ahead for families, careers, and health.
Women's rights advocates often say that they win legal battles but lose the war. This saying applies to sex education advocacy as well: both sexes win battles while losing the war.
I have some ideas as to how high school sex education can effectively address contraception. I envision more talking, fewer handouts, and fewer charts on the board. I envision a dialogue between teachers and students in which students are recognized as capable of making their own decisions. Small groups have often proven effective for sex education, and the teaching strategy is especially relevant for the purposes of contraception education. I see fewer meetings, but longer and in smaller groups, during which students can take the time to explore their feelings and find relevance in conversations about contraception. In these small groups, students need to be taught how to look for answers to questions that arise, sifting through the wealth of information available online -- a kind of "sexual health media literacy."
The answer to question five of the quiz was the diaphragm; because the diaphragm slows urinary flow, bacteria can multiply, increasing the risk of a bladder infection. Although I wish I had nailed this question, I don't care what Marie Claire thinks of my contraception "savvy." But I do care about my health and ability to start a family when I want to, and advance my career and education. I care about life not simply "happening" to me. And I think I'm not the only one. Mandating contraception education that truly equips adolescents to make choices about contraception is the goal we have been missing all along.