Boys on the Sidelines

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By Liz Langley

A John Hopkins University study that says adolescent boys receive less less sexual health education than adolescent girls on a very important subject: contraception. According to a New York Times story fewer than 1/5 of boys had talked contraception with a health care provider whereas 2/3 of young girls had done so.

In comparing the 1995 National Survey of Adolescent Males and the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, sexual counseling for young men doesn’t seem to have improved despite recommendations that it should. The Baltimore Sun says that “The study, published online ahead of print in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found 26 percent of the male teens who reported high-risk sex — sex with a prostitute, sex with a human immunodeficiency virus-infected person, or sex while drinking or taking drugs — said they received STD counseling at the doctor’s office.” Even fewer of all sexually active boys 21 percent – said they’d received counseling on STDs from their health care provider.

* It seems fairly obvious why girls would get more contraceptive counseling: women get pregnant and therefore might be seen as needing the information more urgently. This year being the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill underscores female control over contraception all the more and the fact that as a society we seem just fine with that so far. After all it took 20 minutes for the world to come up with a million apps for the iPhone but 50 years has yet to produce a male birth control pill.

* True, men occasionally buy the condoms and get the vasectomies, but women take the pills, insert the rings, get the patches, IUDs, diaphragms & shots, and buy the condoms despite the fact that it takes two to make a little bundle of expenses and boys deserve to be engaged in life-changing, potentially even life-saving conversations about their health.

But why would health care providers not share sexual health information with a teen at such a perfect juncture to do so?
A story about the nation’s first hospital-based sexual medicine center: by MSNBC’s Brian Alexander suggests one possible answer:

Dr. John P. Mulhall, the director of the sexual medicine program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City suggests another reason why doctors are reluctant. “The average student gets about two hours of sexual medicine in med school,” he says. “The fact is, many doctors feel unqualified to talk sex.”

In my own story on Salon about sexually active senior citizens and HIV I learned that doctors often don’t talk to older people about sex, possibly not thinking that STDs might be an issue at their age. HIV activist Jane Fowler had said “An older person, in the confines of a provider’s office, might even enjoy bragging a little bit.”

Certainly a teenage boy might like as much bragging room as an old man – or might need answers and not know how to ask? Certainly it would be worth it for doctors, teachers, parents or even older siblings to broach the subject. Awkwardness goes away. The consequences of unsafe sex, on the other hand, might not.

About Liz Langley
Liz Langley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in about 20 publications – to see more go to www.lizlangley.com

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