The Sexist

Rubber Barons: Why Doesn’t Your Boyfriend Know Jack About Contraception?

Allison, 26, and her boyfriend were having sex—an activity they had engaged in many times over the six months they had been dating—when her contraceptive vaginal ring fell right out of her vagina. Her boyfriend paused. He developed a sudden concern over the efficacy of the couple’s method of birth control. “He was like, ‘Oh, no. How is it going to catch my semen?’” Allison recalls.

For about a year now, Allison has used the NuvaRing to prevent pregnancy. Three weeks out of the month, the clear, flexible plastic ring sits in Allison’s vagina and releases hormones into her bloodstream that prevent her from ovulating. It does not “catch” anybody’s semen.

“He played it off as a joke,” says Allison of her boyfriend’s bizarre interpretation of her birth control. “But in the tone of his voice, that honest worry was there. Part of him was thinking, ‘What does this ring actually do?’”

Allison is a veteran witness to contraception awareness syndrome. “I was dating a guy in college who knew that I was on the birth control pill. Of course, he was concerned about me getting pregnant,” says Allison. “So he said, ‘You know, you should take four or five of these a day—just take as many as you need to,’” she says.

Jenna had been living with her boyfriend for several months when he floated his own contraceptive theory. Jenna was taking her birth control pills continuously, meaning that she was skipping the pack’s built-in placebo pills in order to stop her period. At some point, her boyfriend discovered how she had managed to avoid the monthly ritual. “I was thinking you were just magical, like a unicorn,” he told her. “I mean, you hope one exists somewhere, but you never think you’ll get to live with one…a cool chick with no period drama that has sex all month long.” He added, “The guys thought I was making it up.” (Boyfriends could not be reached for comment for this story).

According to a new study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, many young American men exhibit attitudes toward contraception that could best be described as “magical.” The study [PDF] surveyed American singles ages 18–29 about their perceptions about and use of contraception. Twenty-eight percent of young men think that wearing two condoms at a time is more effective than just one. Twenty-five percent think that women can prevent pregnancy by douching after sex. Eighteen percent believe that they can reduce the chance of pregnancy by doing it standing up.

For the most part, men lagged behind women on the pregnancy prevention front. And when the study dipped into the realm of “female” forms of birth control, the gender divide intensified. In the study, 29 percent of men and 32 percent of women reported that they know “little or nothing about condoms.” When asked to rate their knowledge of birth control pills, 78 percent of men reported to be clueless, compared to 45 percent of women.

With a majority of young men generally unknowledgeable about hormonal birth control—and nearly half of young women equally stumped—men sometimes don’t figure out the basics until they think they may have impregnated someone, or their penis feels something weird. “I dated a girl with a NuvaRing, while I didn’t know she had one,” says a 22-year-old Arlington resident who didn’t discover how the couple was preventing baby-making until his penis was already well inside her vagina. “I found out the physical way, when I felt the alien object. I immediately recoiled in fear, asking what was wrong. It was frightening. Then she told me her birth control was a ring in her vagina, which I had never heard of.” He demanded the evidence. “She retrieved it—which is a sight to see—and showed it to me, put it back, and we continued,” he says. “I feel like girls should tell people.”

When Allison’s boyfriend expressed concern with the efficacy of her vaginal ring, she told him all about it. But even between two adults, the subject inspired some awkwardness. “The conversation wasn’t exactly free-flowing,” Allison says. “I’ve been dating since high school, and it feels like the men that I date now have a very similar idea of birth control as the men I dated who were high school students,” says Allison. “They get a preliminary idea in sex ed, and then there’s not really any education after that. Nothing ever changes.”

In addition to staging teach-ins, women are also responsible for shouldering the physical, emotional, and financial responsibilities for pregnancy prevention. Pap smears, STI tests, and gynecological sessions about their contraceptive options—that’s just the tip of it for the sexually active woman. In order to keep their birth control subscription fresh, they have to repeat that process every year. Their male sex partners are under no such requirements. As Salon noted last year, women have 11 methods of contraception from which to choose; men have two—condom and vasectomy. And even if men did have additional reliable birth control options, many women wouldn’t trust them to use them correctly. In a comment on the Salon article, one woman wrote, “I love my husband more than anything in the world but I would not place that responsibility on him because if the BC failed and he was responsible for it I would kill him then he would be dead and I would be having a child while in prison.” Perhaps it is no mystery why some men confine their responsibility to forms of birth control which relate directly to their own genitalia.

Gustav Seestedt, 23, says that birth control pills are the form of contraception he has “the most indirect experience with.” He has no idea how they work. “I thought it, uh, controlled, uh… I actually don’t know, now that I think about it,” he says. “Oh, man, I thought it had something to do with hormonal control, but that doesn’t seem right at all. That sounds pretty awful. I thought it, uh, somehow killed fertility with like chemicals and stuff,” he says. The ring, however, strikes Seestedt as a superior option. “I thought that was pretty fine, because, from what I understood, it was kind of a low-cost way of doing it, and it wasn’t really…I like it because chemical pills and stuff are kind of weird, [but the ring] was kind of placed inside, and…you know what I mean? It just kind of did its thing, you know?”

To some, the male indifference to birth control can be attributed to a juvenile disregard for all things related to the place in which the vaginal ring “does its thing.” We live in a country where heterosexual heartthrob Robert Pattinson feels comfortable announcing to Details magazine, “I really hate vaginas. I’m allergic to vagina.” Where tech nerds everywhere let out a collective titter over new Apple device the “iPad,” because it sounds kind of like a thing women use when they’re on their periods. Where Judd Apatow has built a film career out of turning extended vagina jokes into blockbusters.

“I definitely think that the inability to understand birth control goes back to the woman’s period,” says Allison. Months after the vaginal ring incident, Allison’s boyfriend remained confused about the specifics of her menstrual cycle. “The other day, I was on my period, and I took out my tampon before I went into the shower,” she says. “My boyfriend was like, ‘Wait: But you just took your tampon out. Can you go into the shower like that?’”

Allison responded to her boyfriend’s question with more questions. “Does he think that the second I take out my tampon, it’s just blood, blood everywhere?” she wondered. “That if I don’t plug it up with this cotton thing every moment, all hell will break loose?” Her boyfriend did not elaborate. “He was just kind of like, ‘Never mind,’” says Allison. “I think he understood the absurdity of his comment. But he was making an honest attempt to learn about something he doesn’t really know about.”

VIDEO: Men Explaining Birth Control.

Photo by outcast104, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Liz

    I have to say that this article is terrifying (but also very important)! I was shocked to hear that so many sexually active young people aren't bothering to take up their own initiative when their (frequently) abstinence-only high school sex ed class failed them. Maybe it's because my own mother was an HIV/AIDS awareness volunteer and researcher, but given how many risks there are beyond pregnancy, I'm just shocked. What also scares me is when I hear that sexually active people who are not in a long-term monogamous relationship are relying solely on hormonal contraception. Yes, young people tend to ignore risks and believe that nothing wrong will happen to them, but it still shocks me to know that young people can be so cavalier about STIs--when the results can be life-long and even fatal.

    I think we all need to go back to being scared of HIV/AIDS and other STIs, not just pregnancy. We should all know better by now, even those of us who haven't seen someone die of HIV/AIDS.

  • Spectral

    I think the best birth control in such circumstances would be not to have sex with such airheaded guys!

  • Katia

    And just because a person doesn’t know how something works, it doesn’t mean he or she is stupid.

    A person can't help the education they were given. They CAN help the education they don't seek out for themselves. If you're putting something in your body that does something as drastic as making you infertile, why WOULDN'T you want to know exactly how that works?

  • superheavy

    The title of this article should be "Stupid guys get laid: The idiot women whom screw them are surprised at the depth of ignorance."

  • Mike

    I still maintain that young ladies, and women know slightly more then young males, men. All you have to do is turn on the Maury Show to watch young girls trying to get pregnant, find young ladies trying to find who their baby's father is, or watch MTV and watch 16 and pregnant.
    Obviously the men weren't using any condoms, but more than likely neither were the women, or they used their contraceptive incorrectly, like missing a dosage of their pill. Increasing knowledge of various contracptives to men in my opinion is a good idea, but you should also do the same for women, which the above published study shows are nearly as clueless about contraceptive usage as men

  • Lo Down

    “Why don’t men know about female contraception?” with the answer being “Nobody bothers to inform them.”

    Uh, why don't men bother to inform themselves? Why is educating men someone else's (I'm assuming you mean women's) responsibility? Why are you assuming it's OK for men to be passive about their own sexual education? Sex and reproduction are not solitary acts. It behooves everyone to educate themselves about contraception.

  • Frederic

    Biased feminist crap!

    No! Feminist did not invent the "pill"! It was invented by men. And the first woman who used it was no other than Eva Braun Adolf Hitler's wife.
    A big figure of the invention of the pill was Karl Slotta, a biochemist whose work in the 1930s helped research that led to the development of birth control pills, died on June 20, 1987. He was 92 years old.

    Dr. Slotta discovered the female hormone progesterone, which is released after ovulation. Studies on progesterone, which Dr. Slotta found sends chemical signals to the brain that prevent ovulation, eventually led to the development of the pill in the 1950s.

    The first to have promoted the pill were the Nazis...

  • Lo Down

    Er, Frederic--there's nothing in the post that claims that feminists invented birth control pills. Please read before blowing up.

    I think you're getting some of your facts wrong too. Your attempt to link the Pill with Nazis smells like anti-choice BS.

  • Mirri

    @Frederic Wait, that doesn't sound like the nazis at all...

    (incidentally, the only reference to Karl Slotta on wiki is this article on pills for diabetics. )

  • funemployment

    I guess people need to know how babby is formed and how girl get pragnent!

  • Pretentia

    This drives me crazy. We are embarrassed to talk about contraception with people we are not embarrassed to sleep with. These days accurate information is a search engine away - or the local health clinic if you don't have internet access. There is no excuse for being uninformed now except laziness and complacency - and embarrassment. Gee, why are we all so embarrassed about sex - oh yes, the mixed messages of an overly sexual media and abstinence only education. Birth control is a super pet peeve of mine. We can breed glow in the dark animals, but we still find it acceptable that 90% of birth control negatively effects our health and its still only mostly effective, and its still a huge cost for women. Maybe if people were better educated the general public would make enough of a fuss to change it.

  • BanjoDavid

    I realize I am not the target audience for this column, but I will contribute my thoughts.
    I am a man in my 50's partnered with a post-menopausal woman. I had a vasectomy when I was 27. I had been married for 3 years, and condoms were our birth control. My wife had gotten blood clots from bc pills, she tried an iud which would not stay, and caused more bleeding.
    When I went for my vasectomy, SHE had to sign consent, and found that I would NOT have to consent if she chose to tie her tubes.
    We were pissed at the absurd inequality of the legalese bullshit at the time.

    I have never regretted my vasectomy, and would encourage more men to learn about birth control options, and their workings.

    I have always supported abortion rights, but it can't be an easy choice for anyone to make. The emotional and physical process has to be a tough thing to go through. I lost a LOT of sleep in college, when my girlfriend had a pregnancy scare. She was just late. I am glad I never got anyone pregnant, because at a young age, I knew I never wanted to be a father. I've never changed my mind about that.

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  • submachine

    All I know is that most of the females I date (mostly college girls) have no clue about birth control, and hate condoms, go figure.

  • Brian

    Sounds to me like some women are choosing men who aren't very bright, or lack intellectual curiosity, and are oddly surprised when the guy reveals his ignorance. If they desire a man who is knowledgeable about biology and reproductive health, perhaps they should suss this out before hopping in the sack with him.

  • ConcernedMan

    I think your article paints a picture of men being ill informed about birth control, there are a lot of guys out there who know more than women. You make guys look like a bunch of idiots "how's it supposed to catch my semen" I really think you made that up considering they say how it works on commercials plus no dude would call it semen they'd be like "catch my jizz" and maybe the men out there who have no idea should go back and take another sex education class cause that was taught in my class back in the 90's. So unless these guys are from 1960 I am pretty sure they aren't that dumb and if they are; well maybe YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE SEX WITH THEM!

  • Twelve

    Ugh. why is male bc pills always brought up.

    so let's look at this from a numbers standpoint, the female body produces one egg every 28 days. and the pill is 99%(ish) effective. So by this reasoning one egg in almost 2 years will get by. Now lets look at this from a male perspective.

    The "minimum" for purposes of fertility testing is over 20 million per millilter. "Normal" sperm counts are in the range of 60-80 million per milliliter. The average ejaculate is approximately 2 millileters, so "at one time," an average man has 120-160 million sperm

    now a 99% effective rate is still very very good, but at the rate of 120 million sperm that still leaves 1.2 MILLION sperm that can get through. Not per two years, but for each time that the male ejaculates.

    THAT is why male BC pills won't work, even if they didn't result in chemical castration too often enough to make them prohibitive.

  • Amanda Hess


    Since the NuvaRing was only approved by the FDA in 2001, your back-in-the-90s sex ed class sure was prescient. The NuvaRing: prevents ovulation AND travels through time.

  • Meli

    After coming home after finishing university I stayed with my parents for a little while and used their (male) doctor to renew my birth control prescription. Since my old pill was from another country I had to switch pills, so tried to have a dialogue with this doctor about the differences between pills -- which were more likely to have which side-effects etc (I know I'd tried one pill before and was depressed for 2 months after starting it with no other explanation for the very unusual mood-change for me, and another that made me spot continuously for the entire time I was on it). He responded "they're all the same, they're all contraceptives". Just wow...

    Not that all male doctors are this way -- I had one recently who was literally the best doctor I've ever seen on the subject. He was very informative and asked all the right questions. Still, it's pretty shocking that there are doctors out there with so little knowledge about this thing they're prescribing for their patients. I went out and found my own info, but if I'd been a scared 15 yr old I may have taken his misinformation to heart.

  • Teaologist


    "Wearing two condoms only means the male feels less (which is of no importance to his female partner anyway)."

    BWAHAHAHAHA... You wrote this in a post meant to show that men know enough about birth control? The irony, the irony!

    On a different note, I think it makes total sense that men would be less informed about (especially hormonal) contraception. And it has nothing to do with what you learn in school - after all, you could not pay attention in class or promptly forget everything if you don't feel you need to remember it.

    Quite simply, women in general tend to take responsibility for learning about and using birth control because they have more at stake. They know that if they get pregnant, they can end up as a single mother. Many men (not all!) don't worry as much about pregnancy because somewhere in the back of their mind they know than can run away from that responsibility.It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

    Incidentally this is also why I think a male birth control pill would be a commercial flop anyway.

  • Claire

    actually, wearing two condoms increases the chances of breakage by quite a bit because they rub together. So yeah, it kind of does defeat the purpose.

    I hadn't heard about that, but yeah it is wierd and unfair. No one should have control over someone else's body. Fortunately that isn't the case any more, although they do still ask if your partner is aware that your getting it and has agreed. When a friend of mine went to get it and was asked that question he replied by looking the doctor in the eye and telling him it was none of hs business.

    Also, I think that if you read and got something out of it, that makes you a part of the target audience :)

  • someone

    Actually, no way would I shower with a boyfriend right after removing a tampon, because in my case there WOULD be "blood, blood everywhere". Some women bleed more than others, and periods vary from woman to woman. I'm perimenopausal, and not on the pill, and bleed a lot more than I used to when I was younger and on the pill. It's part of the way a woman's body can change with age, and a reflection of being off the pill as well. It wouldn't have been like that for me at age 25 or so, and it's not like that for everyone, but certainly some women have a heavy enough flow that a tampon does serve to "stop you up" a bit.

    Just FYI. I'm sure the woman quoted wouldn't bleed everywhere, but some women certainly would. Like I said, it varies.

    Otherwise, fantastic and informative article.

  • Niamh

    The information in this article, while appalling, was not surprising to me at all (unfortunately). Now, my husband is not as misinformed as the men portrayed in the article, and in fact he's a very intelligent man, but even he was clueless about certain birth control related issues. When we got together 6 years ago, he thought there was only one type of BC pill out there. I told him that I had been on Ortho TriCyclen for about a year and his response was "Isn't that the only type?" Which shocked me. He is certainly not an idiot at all, so I was shocked that he had no idea that there were MANY types of birth control pills out there, not just one.

    Over the course of my sexual lifetime, I've tried two types of hormonal birth control, have had two children (both planned), and am now using a natural form of birth control in conjunction with a diaphragm (even though I never had any "bad" side effects with HBC). I'm just no longer comfortable with artificial hormones constantly running through my body (to clarify... I do not think it's wrong for OTHERS to chose it, it's just not for ME).

    Deciding to no longer use hormonal birth control is what made me realize how little most men knew about it (and many women as well). I speak to girls and women every day about sex, reproduction, pregnancy, and birth control. One thing I see A LOT is men's attitude (and sometimes women's) that hormonal birth control "isn't a big deal" and don't understand why a girl doesn't want to go on the pill (or use the patch, ring, IUD, Implanon, or shot). It just baffles me that most men are not aware of the effects these hormones have on their spouses. Birth control (no matter what type; hormonal or not) is a SHARED responsibility. Both partners should be well versed in the form of birth control THEY are using. This is not just the woman's responsibility and it is not just the man's responsibility.

    Equally, when I learned how to properly chart my cycles (when we were trying to conceive our second child), I learned SO much about my body that I was never taught before... even in sex ed. I then found that I was definitely not alone. Most women are not aware that 28-day cycles are not the only "normal" cycle lengths and that it's perfectly normal and healthy to have a 34 day cycle, or cycles that vary in length even within one woman. Most women I've ever spoken to had no idea that taking your waking temperature every day will tell you if/when you ovulated that cycle because the progesterone released by the corpus luteum after ovulation causes a thermal shift in your waking temperature. Most women I've ever spoken to had any idea that the fluids (mucus) they released throughout their cycles (that many women often mistake for a vaginal infection) was telling them VOLUMES about their fertility level at any point in their cycle (and is totally normal and healthy). These topics were not discussed in the little "period pamphlet" we got in 5th/6th grade. This was not discussed in biology class in high school. Most people do not know that properly charting your cycles using a sympto-thermal method is a highly effective form of birth control (and is NOT the very inaccurate "Rhythm Method").

    My husband and I have a 3 year old son and a newborn daughter. Teaching them BOTH male and female anatomy, sympto-thermal charting, and detailing all available birth control options is definitely something we will be instilling in them from an early age. My daughter isn't the only one who needs to know how her body works and the efficacy and side effects that birth control methods have... my son needs to know these things as well. Maybe if we start teaching our children proper sexual education, we won't have adults (male and female alike) that know little to nothing about their bodies, their spouse's bodies, and their birth control methods.

  • torbach

    Ladies, if your man is a moron remember, you picked him.

  • Conrad Davis

    Many men have used or observed the use of tampons as first aide. The best way to stop a bloody nose at sports practice is to stick an inch of cut tampon up it. The tampon expands and stops the flow of blood until it clots, when it can be removed. Guys don't assume that the menstural blood will clot, rather that it will be held inside until the tampon is removed and the blood can be voided into a toilet. I'm kind of dissapointed that tampons don't usually work that way-- they're just an inside diaper. Gross. Grosser than before.

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  • Mackenzie

    @ Toysoldier:
    Wearing 2 condoms does NOT just mean the male feels less! It means they're likely to break due to the friction of the rubber against rubber. This is why in sex ed you're taught to *never* use a male condom and a female condom together. And the pill *does* increase a woman's risk of various health issues. There are plenty of side-effects to it.

    The guy who thought the NuvaRing catches semen probably had it confused with a diaphragm or sponge.

  • Mitsy

    I don't particularly know much about birth control and how it works, nor do I care to. As long as it works, I'm fine. But articles like this that place such emphasis on it as to the point of obsession further reduce my interest and really, just make it seem gross.

  • Amanda Hess


    Do you think that birth control pills are more effective if you pop four or five at a time? Do you think using two condoms protects you better than one condom? Do you think douching after sex reduces your risk of pregnancy? Do you think that you have to make your vaginal ring fit a certain way to ensure that it catches sperm? Do you think having sex while standing up helps prevent babies? Do you think missed periods are caused by magic?

    If so, then you're either a. greatly increasing your risk of pregnancy, b. wasting a lot of time on needless precautions to avoid pregnancy (douching?), c. denying yourself some important options for your own sexual health (you can skip your period, and it's not magic), or d. missing out on some other sexual positions (you can lay down, too).

    Our bodies are kind of gross. It's important for us to get over that, because a lack knowledge about birth control can have serious consequences.

  • Dr

    @twelve - that's not what the numbers mean. when the pill is referred to as 99% effective it means that if 100 women of reproductive age use the pill properly (i.e. don't forget to take it) for one year then only one of them will get pregnant. The one who does get pregnant will have done so because of some kind of failure of the hormones, e.g. caused by a stomach upset which will reduce hormone levels.

    The idea that 1.2 million sperm get through each time you have sex is totally flawed - when they say failure rate for condoms (which is more like 3% failure even with perfect use - holding it when he pulls out, etc) they mean that 100 women of repro. age having sex for one year, three of them will get pregnant if they're partner uses condoms.

    Both stats are pretty good, but I put my money (so to speak) on the Pill.


    i agree all because one boy dosent want to know stuff about contraception dosent mean every boy in the history of boys knows at least some stuff

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  • pG

    Not to take away from the serious subject of this article, but the Pattinson quote about being "allergic to vaginas" was from an old British joke (he was concerned about "swelling" during a photo shoot with naked models). Mentioning the word "vagina" should not be taboo, same with penis, if honest discussions about birth control are to take place.

  • Daltonious

    look, regardless of prior education on the matter, any male that's of a responsible mindset that chooses to be sexually active with a female partner is obligated to be knowledgeable of her contraceptive device. being a biology teacher, i'm absolutely appalled by the vast majority of my male friends who come to me with questions about female contraceptives that they SHOULD have some knowledge on already. IUD's seem to confuse them. the pill doesn't makes sense to most of them until i explain it. hell, even some aspects of the use of condoms can be baffling to's sad that these people have somehow come to believe that the "pull out" method is just as effective as using a condom...the same mentality of people who truly believe they are the "best drunk driver" they've ever known...Guys, take responsibility for this! Talk to your partner about how this effects her and, if you really wanna be a man, help her with the cost of the pill monthly if she's on helps you BOTH!

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  • @lly

    This article is quite easy to sum up, I'm quite sure that most men are not this stupid, the ones that are that stupid should not be having sex.

    GOOGLE, BING, SCROOGLE, YAHOO... use it, kthanks. My own boyfriend knew more about my birth control than I did, and he's a computer geek. He was able to do this through the great wonders of a search engine.

    The men in this article hurt my brain, and I hope that women don't get the wrong idea that all men are like this. Additionally, I hope women don't get the idea that they are somehow better or smarter, because I don't think that's what this. When I decided to start the pill, I included my boyfriend in the process, not because his decision would rule what I did with my uterus, but because I care what he thought and I wanted him to know. Yes, a man should be inclined to want to know and ask but perhaps previous experiences have biased them. Maybe they're afraid to ask because they're afraid of prying or overstepping a boundary? Or maybe, it could be the women aren't quite sharing either as well as they should.I'm not necessarily saying it is the case either way, just playing a devil's advocate.

    Ultimately, the article was cool, and I did enjoy it. I do feel that some people don't know, and it's important for men and women to both know the options. I doubt the author meant for anyone to take the connotations of which most people in the comments have got, but that tends to happen when you write about subjects like this.

  • snobographer

    @twelve - It's fallacious to compare the release of one egg to the ongoing production of millions of sperm. Sperm and ova are different critters. And what so far appears to be a safe male medical contraceptive is in the works.