Taking Control: The Importance of Reproductive Health Education

Exploring the role of sex education in making informed choices about contraception

by Casey Hall / Garnet & Black

The Pill. The Implant. The Shot. The Ring. The Patch. The IUD. With so many options, choosing a birth control can be a daunting task for so many women. It’s natural to have questions about which method works best, what the side effects might be and how the pros and cons of different methods measure up. Choosing a birth control can also be a scary endeavor. The lack of information combined with the stigma surrounding the use of contraceptives makes it tricky to detect fiction from fact and fear tactics from the truth. 

Out of three anonymous UofSC students who spoke about their experiences with choosing a birth control, two had some serious concerns about the effects birth control might have on their bodies before going on the Pill. These fears included “long-lasting effects on fertility or hormones” and “weight gain”. One student even listed it "making me ‘crazy’” among her concerns, a fear that reflects the aura of historical misogyny that lingers around conversations about women’s reproductive health. The word “hysterical,” after all, has its roots in the Greek word meaning “womb”. 

Societal pressures and concerns can also affect women’s access to contraception and can contribute to some hesitancy about going on birth control. Perhaps the most common misconception lies in the idea that a young woman on birth control MUST be sexually active, something that is more frowned upon for women than for men. A sexually active man is considered healthy and natural, while a sexually active woman is often considered promiscuous or amoral. 

Whether a woman on birth control is sexually active or not, the association between birth control and promiscuity or impurity is still there. This fact proved to be a roadblock in the process of attaining birth control for one UofSC student, who has also asked to remain anonymous. The student, who at age 17 wanted birth control to ease the pain of a particularly difficult menstrual period, met some resistance from her mother. “I was throwing up every day that I was on my period, but [my mom] was so apprehensive because she thought it was a gateway to me having sex.” 

Even though this student was not planning to become sexually active, the fear and hesitancy associated with young people, especially young women, having premarital sex, was a large factor in her ability to receive proper access to reproductive health tools. Unfortunately, this kind of reaction is not a rare occurrence. Oftentimes, whether someone chooses to go on birth control to ameliorate a heavy period or to prevent pregnancy, the stigma around female sexuality stands in the way of attaining contraception.

Dr. Kathryn Luchok, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies here at the University of South Carolina, provided some insight into the stigma around sexual health and sex education in the United States. According to Dr. Luchok, much of the stigma and problems concerning birth control use (or lack thereof) lie in the lack of sufficient information and sex education. 

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding from parents as far as what it means to do comprehensive sex education,” Dr. Luchok said. “There’s a misunderstanding that telling [young people] about being responsible in sexual behavior and what the forms of birth control are is going to make them decide to become sexually active.”

But, according to Dr. Luchok, keeping young people in the dark about birth control doesn’t mean they’re not going to become sexually active— it just means that when young people inevitably do become sexually active, they won’t know how to do it safely. This puts America’s youth in peril, only increasing the threat of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Instead, learning about safe sex should be a pillar of growing up, just like getting a first job or receiving your driver’s license. 

“Basically, when we are teaching kids to drive, we don’t throw them the keys and say ‘good luck with that’ and then they have to figure it out themselves,” Dr. Luchok said. “Instead, we have Driver’s Ed, we take them on practice runs; but, with sex, we’re pretty much just either throwing them the keys or ignoring it completely.”

Comprehensive sex education, as opposed to abstinence-only, is about risk management rather than risk ignorance. It aims to give teens all the information they need to protect themselves and others and is proven to decrease rates of unintended pregnancy, STI transmission and abortion. However, certain outdated, sexist ideologies make good, comprehensive sex education hard to come by in the United States, especially here in the South. Many schools favor abstinence-only education, although, according to Dr. Luchok, “abstinence is a behavior, not a method”. Abstinence is great in theory, but leaving kids uninformed about sexual health is not necessarily a reasonable approach to sex education. The lack of comprehensive sex education programs means that a good portion of America’s adults also don’t have a completely accurate understanding of their sexuality, how to protect themselves and how their bodies work. There’s a gap in the collective knowledge of the country concerning one of the most basic and integral aspects of human life. 

Such a gap can make understanding contraception and choosing a birth control method incredibly difficult. The key to closing this gap lies in education, allowing people to learn about their full options in a comfortable space free from judgment or fear. While it might take a while to improve the legal standards for sex education in schools, thankfully we live in an age where most information is a few clicks away. Infographics and fact sheets on reputable websites such as those for Planned Parenthood, Bedsider.org and the Reproductive Health Access Project (RHAP) can be valuable sources of information. 

Both professionals and current birth control users alike agree that seeking information about your options is a vital step toward figuring out what contraception is right for you. When asked to provide tips for someone thinking about going on birth control, all three UofSC students interviewed gave similar advice, the consensus being: “Do your research.” Before going to the doctor, it’s a good idea to look into the different methods of birth control and get an idea of which one best fits your needs. Reproductive health, after all, is personal. As Dr. Luchok puts it, “Birth control is like blue jeans: everybody can wear blue jeans, not everybody can wear the same pair.” It’s important to talk to your friends, normalize conversations about reproductive health and get comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics. But, ultimately, your sexual health is in your own hands— it’s up to you to get all the information necessary to make the choice that’s best for you.

For reproductive health care on campus or to speak to a healthcare professional about your options, make an appointment for Women's Health through the Student Health Center on MyHealthSpace.