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What About the Boys?

By Freya Sonenstein

In 1983, I was in Washington, D.C., evaluating programs for teen moms. There were about 1 million pregnancies per year among teens back then, and I began to wonder: "Why aren't we talking about the guys? What do we know about the boys?" We knew virtually nothing. And there was a stereotype that many guys were sexual predators.

So I became interested in learning about guys' attitudes toward sex and contraception. With NIH funding, my colleague Joseph Pleck and I designed the National Survey of Adolescent Males (NSAM) in 1987. It was the first of its kind. Our findings challenged the stereotypes. Many guys were not sexually experienced before age 17, and, when they were, many had sex sporadically—spending 6 months per year on average with no sexual partner. Another major finding was that condom use had doubled since the late 1970s—evidence that young men could be persuaded to change their sexual behavior. This was important because by 1988 the HIV epidemic had been recognized. The increase in condom use since then is one of the most dramatic changes in teenagers' risk-taking behavior in the last 25 years.

After conducting two rounds of NSAM, I helped the National Center for Health Statistics integrate men into the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. Including men in the nation's premier fertility survey underscores what we knew all along: Male partners are important. Their information is crucial for tracking progress and for developing programs that will help reduce unintended pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.