L.Faye Christian was appalled at what she learned when she tried to get an appointment for her teen-age son to have family-planning counseling at a branch of the Fairfax County Health Department.
"It was made quite clear that the program was structured for females and such a request was not the norm," said Christian, who has two children. "The brochures don't encourage males to come. I had to be referred to a supervisor."
The supervisor was not available and a nurse agreed to call her back, but meanwhile Christian was concerned. Her 17-year-old daughter had attended a similar family-planning counseling session just days before and received valuable help; why should it not be as easily available to her son?
She tried unsuccessfully to complain directly to the director of the county health department. The next day, she received a call, offering her son a "special" appointment.
"But I'm still angry about a system that so obviously perpetuates a lack of responsibility on the part of the male," she says. "It's time that males at least become more aware and start assuming a share of the responsibility in making sure the female doesn't get pregnant. I've talked to my son, but the society and peer influence is stronger."
Dr. Garth B. Dettinger, assistant health director for Fairfax County, agreed that counseling men "isn't the norm" at the county's family-planning centers, but said there was "no policy against it."
"It's a very unusual request," Dettinger said. "I have the feeling most men are embarrassed to come in here when they could pick up condoms at the drugstore without a big hoopla. Nurses who do the counseling are all female and that might make males a little less eager to come in. But let's face it, the onus of preventing pregnancy falls to the woman," he said.
But sexual counseling involves more than handing out contraceptives, and Christian is not alone in struggling with concerns about how to make sure adolescent children have access to the best possible advice.
Most young men get their sex education on street corners--and get a lot of misinformation and venereal disease in the process. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America started two men's clinics in Washington in the late 1970s, two of a handful in the county designed to involve men in family planning. Reagan administration budget cuts have wiped out those clinics, said PPFA's Mary Janney, who got into trouble with the administration when the foundation spent $1,000 in federal funds to sponsor a "Rubber Disco" designed to increase male awareness of birth control.
Janney says of Christian's experience, "I regret that does not surprise me. That is more the norm . . . but I would not expect many family-planning clinics to include men. The whole issue of males is one we need to face up to. What men think about contraception has too much to do with what women think. It is one of life's many great inequities."
It would be easy to dismiss the lack of counseling for young men as "just an inequity" if men's ignorance of sexuality did not have such profound effects on society. The notions of so many young men are shrouded in myths that in turn directly contribute to the alarming rise of adolescent pregnancy. Young men and women's ignorance of how their bodies work contribute directly to many of these unintended pregnancies. So men need to learn about female birth control and be involved in making decisions about contraceptives.
Three years ago the Worldwatch Institute, reporting that society was ignoring men's interest in birth control, said, "Men are the forgotten sexual partners." The result is a lack of understanding of reproduction and contraception as well as of male responsibilities in birth control.
Christian's son is wiser today as a result of her complaints and his "special" appointment, but it shouldn't take such special efforts to encourage young men to accept responsibility and involvement. It will cost money, of course, for society to undertake that burden. But either we pay to educate them or we pay social and psychological costs of unintended pregnancies and abortions later on.