Attitudes of college students toward contraceptives: a consideration of gender differences
Larry M. Lance
There exists a “contraceptive gap” among young people. That is, while a large majority of young males and females become sexually active, there is a time lapse between the onset of sexual activity and the use of contraceptives. As a result of this lack of sexual responsibility, there are over 1,000,000 teenage pregnancies each year in the American society. Although most of these pregnancies are unwanted and not planned, about 90% of these young females decide to keep their babies. Hardships are frequently associated by these women as well as society, since economically disadvantaged mothers will rely on social welfare to provide for the cost of raising a baby. Based on data collected from 358 southeastern metropolitan university students, gender differences in attitudes towards contraceptives are considered. Based on the findings, suggestions are offered to increase sexual responsibility.
University men’s and women’s attitudes towards sex seem to have converged over the years, yet differences still exist. In the past men generally held more positive attitudes towards sex than women; that is, feeling less guilt for sexual behavior, feeling that sex is a natural social evolution of relationships, resulting in a more open attitude regarding sex. As a result of positive attitudes about sex, men engaged in a wider variety of sexual behaviors more often than women. Gender role socialization was proposed as a key factor in gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors. Traditionally, men were expected to be sexually pre-active–initiating and controlling sexual interactions–and having an ongoing overriding interest in sex. Women, on the other hand, were expected to be sexually reactive and disinterested in sex. These sex differences in attitudes and behaviors were considered the result of differences in gender role expectations.
In a major study of the findings from 239 samples with a total of nearly 130,000 males and females pertaining to the association of gender to 21 sexual attitudes and behaviors, several gender differences were reported (Oliver and Hyde, 1993). In contrast to females, males demonstrated more permissive attitudes regarding coitus between people in a casual relationship or in a dating relationship that did not include commitment.
Dealing specifically with the self-reported roles taken by males and females is sexual activity. Based on an examination of contemporary sexual behaviors among university students (McCormick, 1979), males reported the use of more strategies to initiate sexual activity than did females. On the other hand, females reported using more strategies to avoid or restrict sexual activity than did males.
In contemporary American culture, it is generally thought that men are more sexual than women; that men have stronger and more readily stimulated sexual appetites and that they find sex more pleasurable than women. From the perspective of sexuality as a valuable resource, powerful people seek to gain control of it. In the American culture males generally have had more power than females. Thus, powerful males attempt to obtain sexual satisfaction for themselves and also to control sexual access to those who are important to them.
One study (Granberg and Granberg, 1985) indicated that both male and female students expressed that it is desirable to be sexually responsible. A large majority of these respondents have favored the use of contraceptives. They also have indicated that it was not necessary to require consent for teenagers to obtain contraceptives. In terms of sex differences, females tended to be slightly more approving of contraceptive availability. Also, approximately two-thirds of the males and females have expressed approval of abortion.
Age of beginning sexual intercourse has been declining for females and males. Moreover, gender differences with regard to experience with sexual intercourse are narrowing. For example, in contrast to Kinsey who indicated that less than 6% of the females born before 1911 had sexual intercourse by age 19, a study 40 years later reported 74% of the females had sexual intercourse by age 19 (Spitz et. al. 1996). One investigation found 1/3 of females and males had sexual intercourse by age 15 (Leigh et. al. 1994). Another study found 53% of males and 43% of females reported having sexual intercourse by the 10th grade (Adams et. al. 1992). Between 60% and 80% of high school students have reported sexual intercourse by their senior year of high school (Center for Disease Control, 1999; Santelli et. al. 2000). For females and males the average age of reported first sexual intercourse was between 16 and 17 (Sprecker et. al. 1995).
Different factors play a part in the involvement in sexual intercourse (McAnulty and Burnette, 2003). Among males, levels of testosterone are related to sexual activity (Udry et. al. 1985). For females, interest in sex, but not actual sexual behavior, is related to testosterone levels. Social factors seem to play a greater role in sexual involvement for teenage females than teenage males (Udry, 1990). In addition, teens own perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of having sex, together with their past sexual histories, appear most important in determining age of first sexual intercourse (Dailard, 2001). Further, perceived peer norms also are involved in the timing of sexual intercourse. Teens who perceive that their peers are involved in sexual intercourse are more inclined to start themselves (Kinsman, et. al., 1998; Miller et. al. 1997).
Some teens perceive asking a partner to use a condom is threatening. They feel that it signals a lack of trust or love. Some males report reduced sensitivity of the penis from the use of condoms. Some teens feel invincible, maintaining “it could never happen to me.” However, statistics indicate otherwise (McAnulty and Burnette, 2003).
Overall, condom use for sexually active teen females is rising, doubling between 1982 and the 1990’s (Piccinino and Mosher, 1998; Santelli, et. al. 2000). However, for those sexually active teens under 15, condoms are not used consistently (Santelli et.al. 2000). These teens are less apt to use condoms, have more partners, and have sexual intercourse more than older teens (Seidman and Rieder, 1994).
Some parents perceive condom availability will increase sexual activity among their teen children. Research indicates otherwise. Lack of condoms does not appear to deter sexual activity among teens and condom distribution programs have not been found to increase sexual activity among teens (Furstenberg et. al. 1997; Kirby et. al. 1999). Some studies report increased use of contraceptives for teens who have participated in sexual education programs, especially when they are involved in these programs before becoming sexually active (Franklin et. al. 1997; Maulton and Luker, 1996).
Many studies have been conducted to point out the differences in the sexual attitudes and behaviors of females and males. The purpose of this study was to examine the contemporary sexual attitudes and perceived sexuality information of university students. More specifically, this research was conducted to identify both the similarities and differences in the sexual attitudes and perceived sexuality information of females and males. Further, this research examined the similarities and differences in sexual attitudes and perceived sexuality information of females and males to suggest ways to increase sexual responsibility. What changes in the sexual attitudes and perceived sexual information of one gender or the other would serve to promote sexual responsibility?
For this research the sample consisted of 358 southeastern metropolitan university students. Students in this sample, who were attending courses that are elected by undergraduates and graduate students throughout the university, completed a six-page, group administered questionnaire. Participation in filling out this questionnaire was completely voluntary and the identification of the respondents was anonymous.
Of the 358 students who participated in this study, 228 were females and 130 were males. Both females and males indicated mixed support for sexual responsibility. For example, both females and males basically agreed that contraceptive information and prescriptions should be available on campus. However, both females and males were mid-way between being undecided and agree on the proposal that condom vending machines should be readily available in public places (i.e., on campus, in restaurants, in bars, etc.). Also, both females and males generally were undecided about being embarrassed to buy condoms. Both females and males were undecided about whether advertising persuades them to use condoms.
While both females and males were generally undecided about issues dealing with sexual responsibility, they were also undecided about involvement in sexual intercourse. For example, females and males were about half-way between undecided and agree about feeling that pre-marital sexual intercourse is immoral. Further, both females and males were undecided as to whether a woman who has had sexual intercourse with a great many men is immoral.
Gender differences were found with the use of condoms as a way of taking on sexual responsibility (See table 1). With respect to stopping to put on a condom ruins “the moment,” while females were more in agreement than males for this statistically significant relationship, both females and males were generally between undecided and agree. In terms of feeling comfortable bringing up the subject of condom use with a potential partner, females tended to be more disagreeable than males, although both females and males were generally between undecided and disagree. With respect to the idea that having contraceptives available increases promiscuity, females were more disagreeable than males, with females and males being generally between undecided and disagree. The most statistically significant difference was with the item, “I would be in attendance at some these peer sexuality programs,” with females being more agreeable than males (p < .001).
There were aspects of sexuality where the differences in the perceptions of information of females and males were statistically significant (See Table 2). With respect to the sex differences in perceptions of information of human sexuality topics, females perceived themselves to be more knowledgeable than males perceived themselves to be with respect to contraceptives for females (pill and Norplant). Females also perceived themselves as more knowledgeable than males perceived themselves to be with respect to menstruation.
Rejecting the position that sociology should be value free, humanist sociology is based on the belief that one should be actively involved in social change. The professional objective of the humanist sociologist should be to employ the methods of sociological research to assist members of society from being deprived of opportunities to reach their full potential instead of building a personal reputation or to seek abstract knowledge.
Humanist sociologists take the position that they are free, reflexive people, who, if completely informed, will decide to do the socially responsible thing (Scimecca, 1995). In American society there have been over 1,000,000 teenage pregnancies each year. Most of these pregnancies are unwanted and not planned. Such pregnancies serve to create hardships and restrict the potential of millions of young people (Allgeier and Allgeier, 2000).
Findings from this research suggest specific policy proposals designed to improve the conditions facing young people who are deciding to become sexually active at younger ages. These proposals involve ways to improve sexual responsibility. One proposal is to use social forces to promote favorable attitudes toward condoms. Students, both females and males, tend to be embarrassed to buy condoms. Promoting favorable attitudes toward condoms needs to be carried out using advertising, peer socialization and parental socialization.
Improvement also needs to be made in sexual communication between females and males. Students do not seem very comfortable with bringing up the subject of condom use with a potential partner. While assistance in this area needs to be provided to both genders, this study suggests that more attention should be directed to the comfort levels of males. Also, both females and males need assistance with the idea that stopping to put on a condom “ruins the moment.” Females seem to need more assistance with this than males.
Both genders perceive themselves to be knowledgeable about intercourse and condoms. However, it is possible that many young people do not use the information. Many young people still have a strong belief in denial. Thus, attention needs to be directed to the promotion of the application of information on intercourse and condoms. Also, it would be helpful to encourage males to develop a greater understanding of female contraceptives.
As research has shown, differential socialization has lead to gender differences in sexual attitudes, behaviors and information. However, despite differences between females and males in these areas, there needs to be a change in the same direction for both genders–sexual responsibility. This will serve to reduce hardships and increase the possibility of realizing human potential.
Gender Differences in Attitudes Toward Sex for Southeastern
Metropolitan Unviersity Students (N = 358)
Item Gender N MEAN S.D. t LEVEL
Stopping to put on M 127 1.79 1.27
a condom ruins
“the moment.” F 224 1.47 1.22 2.32 p < .05
I feel comfortable M 128 2.34 1.40
bringing up the
subject of condom F 225 2.72 1.27 -2.63 p < .01
use with a
Having M 130 1.87 1.24
available F 228 1.53 1.26 2.45 p < .05
I would be in M 131 2.02 0.94
some of these peer F 229 2.55 1.34 -4.08 p < .001
Gender Differences in Perceptions of Information of Human Sexuality
Topics for Southeastern Metropolitan University Students (N = 358)
Item Gender N MEAN S. D. t LEVEL
Information on M 128 1.77 0.898
Menstruation F 226 2.69 0.561 -11.76 p < .001
Information on M 129 2.09 0.857
Pill F 227 2.51 0.7 -5.13 p < .001
Information on M 128 1.25 1.03
Norplant F 227 1.50 1.5 -2.34 p < .05
* Presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the Mid-South Sociological Association, November 5-8, 2003 in Baton Rouge, L.A.
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