AP Photo/Charles Krupa

A new counseling program aimed specifically at young men has its work cut out.

In 2012, University of Missouri sociologist Jennifer Beggs Weber set out to know how much responsibility teen dads take for their partners’ pregnancies. In interviews with 26 young fathers in a Midwest city where teen birth rates were higher than average, she found that 22 faulted the mother for the pregnancy. The other four pointed fingers at circumstance, parents, or a doctor. Their explanations were all, in some way, gendered.

“It’s just one of those things where you just wanna have sex,” one 16-year-old told Weber, having explained the pregnancy as an accident. “You’re not thinking of anything else... I mean… I’m a guy, you know… ."

Of course, the responsibility is partly theirs. But it is also society’s.

Though the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has lowered considerably since peaking in 1990, it is still nearly three times that of some of Europe’s strongest economies. This matters. Teen moms are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be poor as adults, and to have children with worse health and educational outcomes than women who wait to have children.

Even as contraception is improving and gender norms are changing for women, a huge factor in teen pregnancy has often gone unaddressed: Boys.

“We have so very few, if any, evidence-based models on working with guys to reduce teen pregnancy,” David Bell, associate professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a press release.

The moment has come to start that work. The Centers for Disease Control has funded a five-year, $3.6 million teen pregnancy prevention program aimed just at males, led by Bell. It’s the first grant of its kind. The project will use motivational interviewing to counsel 650 young men recruited from a local clinic and two high schools. Using an experiment-style approach supported by an app, Bell and his colleagues will monitor whether talking with some of the boys about contraception, communicating with their partners, and healthcare access will lower their rates of unprotected sex.

“We have so few things that work with young men—particularly young men of color—in a positive way,” Bell said. “This project is on the forefront of working with this population in that positive way and I think we can foster more like it for our nation and culture overall.”

They will have a long way to go. Though Weber’s study was relatively small, its findings resonate with a larger cultural stance on reproductive health for women of all ages: That it is purely a “women’s issue.” Sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention programs often fail to reckon with these big-picture influences, Weber writes.

As important as Bell’s program will be, its young clients will stand to benefit from a frank acknowledgement of how deeply gendered the national dialogue about sex—and how to have sex safely—have been.  

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