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40 Percent of Young Adults Think Birth Control 'Doesn't Matter'

The majority of young adults are woefully misinformed about birth control. Thank abstinence-only education.

In abstinence-only sex education classes across the country, kids are taught that condoms have a 30 percent failure rate, that the pill causes cancer, and that pregnancy can result from touching another person's genitals—if the curriculum mentions contraception at all. It's no wonder that many young adults don't understand how birth control works. A new Guttmacher study quizzed 1,241 sexually active young adults between 18 and 29 about contraception, asking them to choose "true" or "false" for basic statements like "all IUDs are banned from use in the United States" or "condoms have an expiration date." More than half of young men and a quarter of young women received a D or F on the quiz. Six in 10 underestimated the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

Unsurprisingly, the more young people knew about birth control, the less likely they were to have unprotected sex. For each correct response a woman scored on the quiz, her odds of expecting unprotected sex in the next three months decreased by 9 percent. Meanwhile, her chances of using a hormonal or long-acting reversible method of birth control increased by 17 percent.

And it's not as if the ones forgoing contraception are ready to become parents: 69 percent of the women and almost half of the men claimed to be "committed to avoiding pregnancy." 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.

This study is particularly infuriating given the Obama administration's recent reinvestment in abstinence-only sex ed. After zeroing out abstinence funding a few years ago, it recently resumed funding Heritage Keepers, an organization that not only leaves condoms and contraception off the curriculum but warns young women to "wear modest clothing" to ward off "lustful thoughts," and assigns students wedding planning homework. The reason behind the influx of cash? One study found that the curriculum delayed sexual activity for some students; after a year of the Heritage Keepers program, the percentage of students who reported to be “sexual experienced” increased from 29 to 33 percent. In the control group, that number jumped from 29 to 43 percent. (It's telling that the researchers neglect to explain the nature of said "sexual experience.")

But as Guttmacher study makes clear, it's not enough for abstinence-only education to delay the inevitable. The point is to make sure that whenever young adults do decide to have sex, they don't end up doing it unarmed—with neither condoms or knowledge under their belts.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user victoriapeckham.

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