CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study of young women and their sexual partners highlights the important role of men in effective contraceptive use. Women who said their partners were “very” in favor of birth control were more than twice as likely to use an effective method of birth control consistently.
The research was done in east Los Angeles and in Oklahoma City, and was led by principal investigator Marie Harvey, a professor of public health at Oregon State University. The study sheds more light on the bundle of contradictions involved with contraception use and sexual behavior; it was published in the journal Women’s Health Issues, and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Harvey, a leading researcher in the field of women’s reproductive health, said one of the unique aspects of this study is that both partners were interviewed on contraception use and pregnancy motivation.
“We are trying to better understand the influence of partners in the sexual dynamic,” Harvey said. “Public health research in the past has largely focused on the woman alone, but we know that these kinds of decisions are not made in a vacuum and that a woman’s sexual partner can be very influential. Yet, research often doesn’t even address the influence of sexual partners on protective behaviors.”
Harvey and her colleagues at the CDC and Alliant International University recruited 435 couples in Los Angeles and in Oklahoma City. Women were eligible only if they were 18-25 years old, had a male sex partner, and were not pregnant and reported that they weren’t trying to get pregnant.
Even among women not trying to become pregnant, less than 60 percent said avoiding pregnancy was extremely important. Both men and women tended to say they participated a lot in deciding whether birth control is used. However, agreement between partners on whether they had discussed birth control was low.
Harvey said this type of contradictory exchange is common in male/female relationships, which is why researchers need to collect data from both partners.
“To a man, having a discussion about contraception might mean that he asked if she was on the pill, and she said yes,” Harvey noted. “To a woman, however, that exchange may not count as a conversation. A conversation to her might mean sitting down and having a lengthy discussion about what type of birth control to use.”
The larger takeaway message is that women have varied and often complicated reasons for why they are, or aren’t, using birth control. Despite what they said about not wanting to get pregnant, a majority of the women were engaging in unprotected sex. Harvey said health providers need to keep this mind when making recommendations for birth control methods.
“Providers need to probe more to understand women’s motivations and help them clarify their desires and make decisions about whether to use contraception or to plan for pregnancy,” Harvey said.