I recently delivered a sex-education workshop to a freshman class at a college in New York City. During the workshop, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked the students to write down any questions they may have about sex. In an attempt to elicit honest questions without fear of embarrassment, all questions were anonymous. As I walked around the room to collect the folded up papers, I noticed that approximately three quarters of the male students had not written anything down, while every female student had written down at least one question. This contrast was so stark the class addressed it without my prompting. One young man said, "I don't have any questions about sex or relationships. I know everything about it." "You just want us to think that!" replied a female classmate, teasingly.
When it comes to sex, do boys generally know more than their female contemporaries, or are they just more afraid to ask questions?
A national survey of sexual health and behavior from Indiana University found that teen boys are more likely to use condoms than any other age group. This encouraging news indicates that boys are committed to protecting their sexual and reproductive health. However, knowing about the importance of condoms may be the extent of some boys' knowledge. A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 44% of boys (compared to 53% of girls) knew that one in four sexually active people under age 25 would get an STD this year. Over a quarter of boys (compared with 12% of girls) believed they could tell if their partner had an STD just by looking at them.
Boys have received the general message that condoms are an important component of safer sex. But what might account for the gender differences regarding specific sexual knowledge? One theory is that boys are socialized to act like they have all the answers. In the book Guy Land: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, author Michael Kimmel writes about one of the tenets of manhood, "I don't stop to ask for directions." Kimmel believes the subtext of this tenet is an aversion to showing any signs of weakness or lack of knowledge. Perhaps boys are afraid to ask questions due to a fear of appearing to be "less of a man".
On the radio show Sex Education 2.0, host Dr. Meg Meeker posed the question of how to best educate boys regarding sex to both me and Dr. Mcilhaney, an OBGYN. We discussed how boys can feel pressure to appear masculine and hypersexual. We all agreed that a support team of extended family, friends, educators and medical professionals can be a rich source of information and support for boys. The host then asked Dr. Mcilhaney what he would do if a 15 year-old boy came to his office and said "Yes, I'm sexually active but I'm using a condom. I'm okay". Dr. Mcilhaney responded, "I would immediately tell him condoms do not reduce the transmission rates of STIs nearly as much as people may think." He would seize the available opportunity to educate, especially because boys may not feel comfortable asking questions.
But, sometimes boys do have specific questions. After my workshop ended, a male student approached me to ask a question he didn't feel comfortable posing in front of his peers. He said he knew he could help prevent pregnancy by wearing a condom, but wanted to know if his girlfriend could get pregnant through oral sex. I answered his question and then chatted with him about where he goes to get answers about sex. He said it wasn't until just now, when people were openly talking about sex, that he realized he had any questions at all.