Study: Young Americans Appallingly Ignorant About Sex

WASHINGTON—The results of a new study indicate many Americans in their 20s are extraordinarily ignorant about even the most basic facts about sex and reproduction.

As Susan Reimer of the Chicago Tribune noted, “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.”

Or not inside, as the case may be. The only question remaining is when someone will blame the national state of sexual ignorance on pornography.

According to a press release issued last week by the National Campaign, the nationally representative survey of 1,800 unmarried young adults ages 18-29 is the first of its kind to focus in depth on the attitudes and behavior of both single men and women regarding pregnancy planning, contraception and related issues.

Researchers discovered “nearly all unmarried young adults ages 18-29 believe pregnancy is something that should be planned (94 percent of men and 86 percent of women) and say that it is important to avoid pregnancy in their lives right now (86 percent of men and 88 percent of women).”

Despite those opinions, however:

    Only about half of sexually active unmarried young adults use contraception regularly—many say they used it inconsistently (24 percent) or not at all (19 percent) over the past three months.
    About four in ten (38 percent of men and 44 percent of women) agree with the statement: "It doesn't matter whether you use birth control or not; when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen."
    Many (29 percent of women and 42 percent of men) say it is at least slightly likely they will have unprotected sex in the next three months—17 percent of women and 19 percent of men describe it as either extremely or quite likely.

Other survey findings contained in the report, The Fog Zone: How Misperceptions, Magical Thinking and Ambivalence Put Young Adults at Risk for Unplanned Pregnancy, include:

Even though 82 percent of young unmarried adults have used some form of contraception in the past and 90 percent believe they have all the knowledge they need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy:

    About six in 10 (63 percent) say they know "little" or "nothing" about birth control pills.
    Three in 10 (30 percent) say they know little or nothing about condoms.

Myths and misinformation about pregnancy and contraception are prevalent, as are inflated fears about the possible side effects of contraception.

    Nearly half (44 percent) of those who have used birth control pills incorrectly believe that women need to take a break from the pill every few years.
    18 percent of men think having sex standing up reduces the chances of pregnancy.
    42 percent of men and 40 percent of women believe the chance of getting pregnant within a year while using the pill is 50 percent or greater, despite research showing the birth control pill typicallyis 92-percent effective.
    28 percent of men incorrectly think wearing two condoms provides extra protection. In fact two condoms are more likely to break due to friction.
    27 percent of women and 34 percent of men believe it is extremely or quite likely that using the pill or other hormonal methods of contraception will lead to a serious health problem like cancer, despite clinical evidence to the contrary.

Many unmarried young adults are suspicious of birth control.

    32 percent agree with the statement: "The government is trying to limit blacks and other minority populations by encouraging the use of birth control."
    43 percent agree with the statement: "Drug companies don't care if birth control is safe; they just want people to use it so they can make money."

Many believe they are infertile. The actual rate of infertility for those 18-29 is about 8 percent. However:

    59 percent of women and 49 percent of men say it is at least slightly likely they are infertile.
    75 percent of those who express concerns about fertility are not basing their concern on information from a doctor.

Many are ambivalent about the timing and circumstances under which to start a family. Even among those unmarried young adults who say it is important to them to avoid pregnancy right now:

    20 percent of women and 43 percent of men say they would be at least a little pleased if they found out today that they or their partner were pregnant.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics and the Guttmacher Institute, half of all pregnancies in the United States are reported by women themselves to be unplanned. Among unmarried women in their 20s, fully seven in 10 pregnancies are unplanned.

"Reducing the nation's stubbornly high rate of unplanned pregnancy will require a combination of responsible individual behavior and responsible public polices," said Sarah Brown, chief executive officer of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "These startling survey results also suggest that this country is in desperate need of a new social norm: Unless both partners are seeking pregnancy and are committed to each other and to the years it takes to raise children, they must take active, careful, and consistent steps to avoid it."

“Think about it,” concludes the Chicago Tribune’s Reimer. “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.”

The report can be downloaded here.