NCFY Reports

‘Act Like a Man’: Challenging Young Men’s Notions of Masculinity to Help Prevent Teen Pregnancy

It takes two to make a baby. Everyone knows that. But when it comes to talking with young people about not making a baby, we seem to focus on only half the equation.

In fact, many advocates say one important element is often missing from teen pregnancy prevention efforts: Young men.

three teen boys sitting together on a park bench.“There’s this ongoing belief, and the kids say it themselves, that teen pregnancy prevention and sexual education are the responsibility of the girls,” says Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, which provides comprehensive sex education to youth and youth workers.

That belief, together with common views about masculinity and the male role in sexual relationships, contributes to teen pregnancy, experts say. Research has found that young men with rigid, traditional views of what it is to be a man are more likely to get someone pregnant, less likely to use condoms, more likely to get a sexually transmitted disease, and more likely to link fatherhood with manhood. Conversely, women are more than twice as likely to use contraception consistently if their male partner is an active supporter.

With that knowledge, many in the teen pregnancy prevention field are bolstering their efforts by engaging young men in conversations about preventing teen pregnancy. They do it by getting to the core of young men’s identity, helping guys to question their own beliefs about what it means to be a man and working with them to see that there are alternatives.

“Effective interventions give men an opportunity to challenge their notions of what it is to be a man and see the benefits of taking on another definition of masculinity,” says Andrew Levack, who directs the Gender Matters initiative in Austin, TX, for EngenderHealth, an international reproductive health organization.

Thinking Outside the Gender Box

Levack starts sessions with young men with a deceptively simple question: “What does it mean to ‘act like a man?’” The answers are invariably the same: being tough, strong, a player, having lots of sex.

Together with the teens, he exposes what their answers say about sex, violence, drugs and alcohol, emotional disconnectedness and mens’ relationships with their children.  In the end, the guys begin to see that society’s expectations and messages about men can be very rigid and pretty toxic, Levack says.  

He draws a box around the list and asks which of these messages can be harmful. They talk about what would happen if the guys didn’t behave this way. They watch videos and analyze rap songs, movie clips, advertising messages. “The idea of a gender box becomes a very powerful metaphor,” he says. “You hear guys say to each other ‘you’re still in the box.’”

Three young men smiling together.“Young men react very positively to the opportunity to reflect on what it is to be male,” he adds. “They don’t like being told how to act, and here they see that by acting in this way they’re playing into a role and being told what to do.”

Levack also works to dispel some of the myths that perpetuate those harmful perceptions of masculinity. For example, men often overestimate how many sexual experiences their peers have, he says.  “The majority of men don’t have all these sexual relationships. There’s this disconnect between what men think other men are doing and what they’re actually doing.”

Single-Sex and Co-Ed Conversations

One key to reaching young men through these sorts of conversations and exercises, Levack says, is creating men-only groups where guys can speak openly, in a way that they couldn’t in a mixed-gender sex-education class.

Schroeder agrees with this approach. Sometimes boys and girls are less serious about participating because they’re preoccupied with showing off for the other gender, she says. “There’s so much fronting for each other, it can be distracting.”

The different ways boys and girls, in general, view sex and self-esteem also means talking to young men separately makes sense. “The longer a girl waits to have sex the higher her self-esteem is, but with boys it means lower self-esteem,” Schroeder says.  “So if you have a lesson on delaying sexual intercourse to a mixed gender group, that message is only going to resonate with half the group.”

That doesn’t mean that young men and women should always be separated in teen pregnancy prevention efforts. There’s merit in both separating groups by gender and in bringing them together, Levack says.

One reason to bring young women and men together to discuss gender and sex is that young women often perpetuate expectations of masculinity, too. Levack describes a young man who told him, “I’m trying to be this new man but my girlfriend says she doesn’t want the kind of man who’s sensitive. She wants a soldier.” Likewise, young men might need myths dispelled about femininity and women’s sexuality. So, some important discussions can occur when young men and women have the opportunity to talk about issues of gender together.  

When starting conversations with young men about male identity and pregnancy prevention, programs should also think about the effect the counselor or facilitator’s gender may have. Some experts say having a man lead the discussion is ideal. “It helps communicate that it’s a guy thing, an issue that guys care about,” says Michael Hayes, deputy for family initiatives in the Child Support Division of the Texas Office of the Attorney General.

But Hayes cautions that just using a male facilitator isn’t enough. “It takes someone who cares enough to involve males to learn, to understand what they want, what they need and to hear their concerns. Young men are smart, they know if someone cares.”

 

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