Sex education for 20-somethings

December 21, 2009|By Susan Reimer

For parents like me, who hoped that a child's 21st birthday meant we could finally put our feet up on the coffee table, this is alarming news:

New research shows that our 20-somethings don't want to have a child at this time in their lives, but they aren't doing much to prevent it. And the result is that among unmarried women in their 20s, 7 of 10 pregnancies are unplanned. Seventy percent.

These are not sexual rookies. Almost all of the 1,800 survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 have had sex, 92 percent have used a condom and almost 80 percent have used the pill.

But their brains are clogged with myths and misconceptions about birth control, and their use of it is careless and erratic.

It is no wonder that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has labeled this report "The Fog Zone," because nothing better describes what is inside the heads of our semi-adult children.

"The cost of contraception and its availability affects its use," said Sarah Brown, head of the campaign. "But this report suggests that there are other barriers to contraceptive use. There is a real gap between [the respondents'] stated intent and their behavior.

"Nearly all say that pregnancy should be planned. Nearly all say they want to avoid a pregnancy at this time. But only half are using contraception consistently, and 19 percent are taking a pass on it altogether."

Of those single adults who said it was very important to avoid pregnancy at this time, 34 percent said it was likely they will have unprotected sex in the near future.

Hello!

We aren't talking about 13-year-olds here. But it is likely they were that age the last time anyone talked to them about the mechanics of sex and birth control, and they appear to have forgotten whatever they learned.

They think you need to take a break from the pill every few years (no longer necessary). They rely on the rhythm method but don't know when in a woman's cycle she is most fertile (midway between periods.) And they think it is OK to use petroleum jelly as a lubricant for a latex condom (nope).

It turns out that the heads of our 20-somethings are filling with so much myth, misinformation and magical thinking that we, their parents, should be ashamed of the job we've done on this important topic.

Our 20-somethings believe they are probably infertile, although only 8 percent of them are. They don't think the pill is effective (research shows it is, 92 percent of the time). And they are so fatalistic that they believe it doesn't matter whether you use contraception or not because, "when it is your time to get pregnant, it will happen."

"In short, many single young adults know little about even the most commonly used methods of contraception, are confused about their own fertility and hold many myths about contraception," the report concluded.

And many are conflicted about when and under what circumstances to start a family. Half of the men and women said they'd like to be parents, just not right now. But 20 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men said they would be at least a little bit pleased if they found out they or their partner were pregnant.

I can't tell you how crazy this stuff makes me.

We've been so busy trying to prevent our teens from having sex before they are emotionally ready and issuing dire warnings about the blighted future of a child born to them that we're unaware of how ignorant and ambivalent our clearly-not-very-grown-up children are about sex and birth control.

"It is not news that intention does not always match action," Ms. Brown said in a press briefing. "Just think about dieting. We expected to see a gap. We just didn't think it would be so prominent for something that is so very important."

Think about it. If you don't know how birth control works and you don't believe it is going to work and you think it might kill you and you think it is all in the hands of the fates anyway, how likely are you to use it?

And if you aren't really sure under what circumstances you want to have a child and if it would be sort of OK if it just happened, how likely are you to do the serious thinking required before taking this huge, family-forming step?

Clearly, parents of 20-somethings, this is no time to put your feet up on the coffee table.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays.

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