Contraception Rightly Empowers Young People to Have Safe Sex

Actress Marlene Dietrich once said, “In America, sex is an obsession – in other parts of the world, it's a fact.” 

What many European countries consider as common sense is still not understood here in the United States: People have sex; young or old, whether for reproductive purposes or not, and with or without adequate information and resources. The Ad Council acknowledges this as well and is working together with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy to promote the use of birth control to prevent unplanned pregnancies through humorous PSAs and a website with information. In her opinion piece about this campaign on the CNN website, Laura Sessions Stepp quotes Sarah Brown, the CEO of the National Campaign: “We need to rebrand contraception as something that promotes self-determination, education, and achievement.”

Yes, we do. As someone who grew up in the Netherlands, that to me is just common sense. But now that I have worked in women’s health education in the U.S., I also know that that sense is not so common here. So I was excited to hear about the Council’s initiative, although the campaign would be more comprehensive and effective if it focused on women and men rather than mostly on women and on overall healthy sexual practices rather than only on birth control for pregnancy prevention.

If we want to delay sexual activity and decrease STI transmissions, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions, we have to start early with promoting safe sexual practices. This includes giving young people the right to act responsibly; instilling them with self-worth; encouraging them to engage in healthy relationships; teaching them to respect their own bodies and those of others; helping them live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives; and providing them with the comprehensive information and resources they need to make smart and healthy choices in all areas of their lives.

As research repeatedly shows, abstinence-only rhetoric and limited access to contraceptives do not prevent sexual activity and unplanned pregnancies – in fact, they contribute not only to higher rates of pregnancies and abortions, but also to an increase in STIs and a decline in overall public (sexual) health. Why do we still not understand that, in Nick Kristof’s words, “Contraceptives no more cause sex than umbrellas cause rain?” 

This country’s obsession with sex frames it as a “forbidden fruit” rather than as a part of human nature, causing young people to be caught between abstinence-only messages and a hyper-sexualized society without adequate tools to make responsible decisions. Don’t we trust our youth, the same people we expect to grow up to be competent and productive adults, with responsibility?

For those abstinence-only and anti-choice advocates who believe in values like smaller government, economic self-sufficiency, and self-determination, equal access to information and contraception should be right up their alley. Government would no longer stand between individuals and their partners and doctors, people would be able to determine their own (sexual) lives, and preventing unplanned pregnancies would allow people to go to school, work, and more adequately provide for their families. 

In addition, why does it seem like some anti-choice advocates are only interested in “pro-life” until birth? Some pregnancies are undesired because the parents lack sufficient resources to raise the child, as society does not provide everyone with the basic necessities to “promote life” beyond birth. If this group believes in “the right to life” instead of the “right to be born,” they need to make sure people at least have the bootstraps they so adamantly insist people should pull themselves up by. And these bootstraps include access to comprehensive resources and information on sexual and reproductive health; that’s just common sense.

Photo Credit: Progress Ohio

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Minjon Tholen

Minjon Tholen is a Diversity & Inclusion Management Consultant based in Washington DC. She was previously a Roosevelt Institute l Pipeline Fellow and holds a Master's degree in Gender and Women's Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Minjon grew up in The Netherlands and was born in Sri Lanka. Her primary interests are diversity & inclusion and social justice & human rights, and more specifically, gender equality and women's rights, sexual and reproductive health, and youth empowerment.

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