Hey, Boyfriend! Male Reproductive Choices
Excerpted and adapted from S.E.X., the Scarleteen Book
If you're someone with a penis who's with a uterus-toting partner, even though you're not the one who can become pregnant, you still get and have choices, and you still should participate in birth control use and responsibility just as much as your partner unless you both -- not just either one of you -- want and are prepared for a pregnancy. Understand that many methods, such as hormonal birth control like the pill or Depo-Provera, carry risks and side effects (and they don't offer any STI protection). Since women bear a far greater burden with pregnancy as well, many prefer to back up their birth control with condom use. So, while it may seem to you that a given method is best and easiest for you, your partner may not feel the same way since she's the one who needs to live with it, short and long-term.
For instance, she's the one who may have a diminished sex drive or less natural lubrication because of the pill, and the one who will need to remember to take it at the same time every day. She's the one who will have to be most responsible, and deal with the most changes to her body and her life if and when an unplanned pregnancy does occur, whatever choice she may make with that pregnancy. If a given method seems like a good choice to you, by all means, bring it up for discussion, but know that the choice is primarily your partner's to make, and she's the best one to make it.
It might be difficult for you to understand the weight of birth control use for women; to comprehend how much a woman has to think about it, how much real estate it takes up in her head. However, it's not unlike safer sex practices, which you can know plenty about. While sexually transmitted infections are something else that women as a group and a class tend to bear the greatest burdens with, STIs still can have a tremendous impact on your life and body.
Think about the flip-flopping that might sometimes go round in your head when you're making those choices --
Do I really need to use a condom for oral sex? Can I get away with not using one for intercourse just this once? Didn't I hear her ex-cheated? What if she got a disease from him? When do I ask her about it? How will she react? What if she takes it as an insult, or thinks I don't trust her? Do I even have condoms with me tonight?
-- the strong desire to avoid an STI, and even how sometimes, it just feels tiresome, or kills your buzz, to have to bring worries and practical issues to bed with you when you just want to freely enjoy yourself without being bogged down with the heavy stuff. Your girlfriend shoulders all that, just like you, and all of those sorts of issues when it comes to pregnancy and birth control that you really don't.
If you're in a long-term or committed sexual partnership with a woman, it's a great idea to suggest helping to shoulder aspects of birth control you can contribute to, like paying for it, helping with transportation to OB/GYN visits, or playing the part you can when it comes to using a given method.
Since you're unlikely to find a doctor that will advocate or allow vasectomy for young men, if you're sexually active, the three methods you can use which are directed by you, or reliant upon you, are condom use (98% effective with perfect use, and 85% effective with typical use), withdrawal (96% effective with perfect use, and 73-82% effective with typical use) or deciding not to have the kinds of sex which present pregnancy risks. All of these methods or choices can be very effective with proper use, and all are great backup methods for other forms of contraception.
Beyond safer sex issues, condom use makes for excellent birth control backup for any other method (though withdrawal can also be used as a backup, it just offers no STI protection), so insisting on that and being in charge of that aspect of birth control can be a great role for you. If we're talking about abstaining from sex which can create pregnancy, since so many young women report feeling that intercourse is something boyfriends push for, if you can be someone to support or initiate not going there, not only is that one way to prevent pregnancy, it also can give your female partner a clear sense that intercourse isn't something she should feel she has to do for your benefit, especially if it carries risks she doesn't want to take or can't yet reduce otherwise.
Understand, too, that when it all comes down to it, of all the birth control options there are, condoms are one of the -- if not the -- least invasive options there are when it comes to side effects as well as the alteration of sexual sensation, for all partners. So, if you think that condoms get in the way of YOU feeling everything you want to feel during sex, remember that most other methods impair or disrupt female sexual sensation far more. Withdrawal may not reduce sensation at all, but it, too, disrupts sexual experience to some degree if a male partner wants to continue with intercourse to or through orgasm/ejaculation.
What if an unplanned pregnancy does happen?
When we're talking about reproductive choice per pregnancy, it's important for folks who have the capacity to co-create a pregnancy but not to become pregnant themselves to recognize that your major choices are choosing to have the kind of sex that presents those risks or not, and choosing to use a method of birth control or not if you do have the kinds of sex which pose pregnancy risks to reduce the risk of pregnancy.
If and when an unplanned pregnancy does happen to a partner because of sex you had with her, this is another arena where your practical choices are limited. A partner who is pregnant has the right to choose either abortion or to give birth and parent on her own, without your permission or acceptance of that choice. Adoption, in many areas (including in the United States), requires your legal agreement. If and when a partner who is pregnant chooses to remain pregnant and parent, you may have some legal financial responsibilities. You will not usually be legally required to actively co-parent, however, that partner and any child will often have very real, big practical and emotional needs for you to do so. Single parenting is doable, but it can be very hard on both a child and parent.
We understand that that can cause many cisgender men to feel like things are out of their control they would prefer are in them. If it's any consolation, many cisgender women in the world would also prefer that biology didn't have its own sexism in this regard, too, and would be delighted if men could also get pregnant, or if a partner's body and life could truly share all of what pregnancy entails for people who themselves become pregnant and deliver. And once more, you always get to choose not to have the kinds of sex which pose pregnancy risks. That choice poses no side effects for you, no possibility of financial, legal or emotional responsibilities, and won't do you or anyone else any kind of harm.
Hopefully, if and when an unplanned pregnancy happens, you can be a supportive partner, even if they aren't someone you're currently in a serious relationship with. It's often very isolating to be pregnant when it wasn't planned (sometimes even when it was), and it's particularly hard on a woman if and when her partner is unsupportive.
Planned Parenthood offers a good breakdown of the difference between an unsupportive partner and a compassionate partner in unplanned pregnancy when a woman is choosing abortion, but these things hold with any reproductive choice:
The unsupportive partner is the guy who rejects any responsibility for the pregnancy. He may stop speaking with his girlfriend or refuse to help her pay for [an] abortion. She got into this situation with his help, but he won't help her. Maybe he offers some money to help pay for the procedure, but doesn't offer any emotional support. Sometimes the unsupportive partner is anti-choice and refuses to be involved with the abortion. He may even try to stop his partner from having an abortion.
The compassionate partner supports his girlfriend in her choices about an unintended pregnancy, including the choice to have an abortion, even if he doesn't agree with her choice. Although he may share his feelings about abortion with his partner, he respects and accepts her decision, too. In whatever way he can, he tries to help pay for the abortion. He may attend medical appointments with her, participating however he can. And he helps his partner get her life back to normal after the abortion. Although he may disagree with her choice, the compassionate partner knows that his partner is the one who is pregnant.
The best ways to do be both a supportive partner, and to best support yourself, tend to involve:
- Let her know that even if you're upset and scared (like she probably is, too), you're going to do your best to be supportive, and are around for her to talk to. Asking her if you can talk with her, too, when you need to talk, and setting any limits and boundaries either of you need for that to feel emotionally safe for both of you.
- Don't blame or accuse, ask questions. If you are earnestly not certain the pregnancy is because of sex with you, or wonder if she used her birth control properly, it's okay to have those questions. But it's important to ask them, fairly and kindly, not to yell, blame or gossip. It's also important to recognize of what use or value some questions have: for instance, if one or both of you didn't use a method properly, finding out who did what or didn't still isn't going to make a pregnancy go away, and acrimony between you won't help you deal with a pregnancy well.
- Assure her that you will support whatever choice she feels is best for her to make with her pregnancy. After all, this isn't happening in your body. It's happening in hers. You can ask her if you can also state your preference, if you have one. If she says yes, you can tell her what that is, make yourself open to talking about it if she wants to, but also reassure her if she's not in agreement, you will understand. If she says no, you can simply respect that.
- Offer to help her with any practical needs, such as transportation to pre-natal care, an adoption agency or abortion clinic, a fair share of financial help with any choice she makes, or any research she wants help with either in making a choice, or after her choice is made.
- Have and respect sound emotional boundaries. Manage any anger or upset as best you can, being sure to be kind and fair in your words and actions. Neither of you wound up in this spot alone, after all, so it's never okay for either partner to put all the responsibility on the other, unless either refused to take no for an answer with sex, use a method of birth control when requested, or one person sabotaged the other's method. It's okay if you're freaked out and upset: again, she probably is, too. Just remember that while it's okay for you both to unload your feelings together, she is still in the more vulnerable position, bearing a greater burden than you are or can.
- Take care of yourself. Even though a woman bears a far greater burden, your emotional care is also important. Facing an unwanted pregnancy and the choices with it are a very big deal, especially if you are unprepared for them. Just because women have more needs in pregnancy doesn't mean men have none. So, be sure to seek out your own care and support, too. If you really need to vent, or are feeling very angry, it's also generally more sound to bring those feelings to someone who is not pregnant.
- Be honest and realistic. None of us are perfect or limitless, and that's okay. So, when she's making her choice, if you strongly feel, for instance, or know, that you don't feel you can commit to 18+ years of parenting, she needs that information to help her make the best choices for herself and a possible child. If you don't feel you can give emotional support after an adoption or abortion, she needs to know that so if she chooses those things, she can arrange for other people to give her that. If you have doubts or reservations about any aspect of her choice that involves you, speak up: that way her choices can be informed ones, and any agreements you to make can be as fair as possible for both of you.
- Advocate for each other. Especially if you're young, an unwanted pregnancy can result in abuse or maltreatment from others, like friends, family or school administrations. If she's choosing abortion or adoption and wants to keep that private, respect her privacy. If she or you are telling your parents, be a united front, having those talks with them together, not going them alone. Make clear to outsiders that you're sharing responsibility, not blaming each other.
It may also happen that you someday have a partner who isn't responsible with her part in birth control, or who wishes to become pregnant when you really don't wish to be involved in that. In those situations, the burden of birth control, via condoms, or by vetoing sex if you don't agree with a partner about readiness for parenthood, may lie solely with you, and you have every right to insist your OWN choices be respected.
It's also completely okay to insist on birth control backup via condom use or withdrawal, even if your partner has told you she already uses an additional method. If you need or want a backup for your own security, your need for extra protection is just as valid as hers. Of course, if you have any reason to believe you can't trust your partner in being honest about already using a method, the best tactic is not to sexually partner with that person at all: trust is an important and vital part of healthy sexual partnership.
On the other hand, you may want or feel ready for parenthood when your female partner isn't, or may wish not to worry about birth control altogether. In other words, it may be you doing or thinking about the birth control sabotage or irresponsibility. Thing is...well, let's not tiptoe. That's not okay. If you're ready for sexual partnership, you need to also be ready to deal with birth control and to respect your partner's wishes when it comes to parenthood and birth control options. If you have a partner who wants to use condoms as birth control and you just don't, then you need to be able to just opt out of sex with that person, taking responsibility for your own wants, rather than battling them or arguing.
You should be just as responsible for birth control as your partner is.
No matter what kind of sexual relationship you're in, you still need to be bringing your half of birth control responsibility to the table, rather than assuming your female partner is or must be solely responsible for taking care of that: like any other part of partnered sex, birth control should be a game for two. That's not just an ethical issue, it's a practical one: if you don't and a pregnancy does occur, your female partner can hold you legally responsible should she see a pregnancy through to term. So, even though it may feel like it's not your issue, and you do have limited choices in the matter, a good deal of responsibility does still lie with you, and to be a good partner, you need to step up and take charge of the aspects you can.
Be sure and talk together with partners about all of these issues, ideally in advance of sex together. A lot of people set up precedents in male/female sexual relationships where anything to do with birth control is entirely on the person who can become pregnant. That doesn't serve men or women. It sets up women to feel like they're in that aspect of sex alone, which doesn't make sense with something that's about partnership, and it can set men up to feel like they get no say, and like they have no responsibilities, which doesn't actually leave most people feeling very empowered. Talking in advance about safer sex, birth control, and the possibility of pregnancy helps assure the choice you both make will be in good alignment with what you both want and feel ready to handle, will make managing birth control a lot easier, and will help make your sexual partnership more of a partnership. And if it turns out in those talks you find you and a potential partner are on radically different pages with any of this -- like if you are anti-abortion, but that's what she says she'd want, like if she wants a kid soon, but you really don't -- having those talks ahead of time can allow you to choose not to be with a partner at all; not to risk situations where it seems clear from the outset, would likely be a real mess.