Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
 
Family Planning Perspectives
Volume 33, Number 3, May/June 2001

IN THIS ISSUE

In the reproductive health field, "partner" is used as shorthand for "sexual partner" or for more charged, value-laden or complicated terms, such as "lover," "paramour," or "girlfriend" or "boyfriend." In fact, a quick check of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary or of Roget's International Thesaurus reveals a real dearth of terms to describe (nonjudgmentally) a couple who have a sexual relationship but are neither married nor living together.

The lack of specific terms for such individuals should not be surprising, given how little we really know about them (at least in a statistical or demographic sense). Social surveys have usually focused on women, and have rarely asked more than a few questions about the characteristics, attitudes and desires of their partners. The few surveys of men that have been conducted likewise have usually asked relatively little about their sexual partners.

In this issue of Family Planning Perspectives, Kathleen Ford and colleagues explore whether the characteristics of adolescents' sexual partners influence contraceptive practices. Using nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the authors find that partners of young teenagers are fairly similar to the teenagers themselves, but that as adolescents age, the characteristics of their partners diverge from their own. And the less similar adolescents and their partners are to one another--whether in age, grade or the school they attend--the less likely teenagers are to use condoms and other contraceptive methods. Educators and providers need to strive harder to discuss with young people the importance of condom use and contraceptive use more generally, especially when their partners differ from them in age or in other characteristics.

In recent years, as sexual activity among Russian youths has increased, they have begun facing some of the same challenges as U.S. teenagers, including the threat of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Yuri Amirkhanian and colleagues present information on the behaviors and attitudes of Russian adolescents that could influence their risk of acquiring such infections. Overall, two out of five 15-17-year-olds in a 1995 survey conducted in eight St. Petersburg high schools were sexually experienced, and these young people had had, on average, 3.4 sexual partners. While three in 10 sexually experienced students said they consistently used condoms, an equal proportion said they never did. Most of the young people believed that AIDS is a threat only to members of particular "risk groups," and relatively few thought they could contract HIV. The authors argue that educational and behavioral interventions are urgently needed if Russian youths are to avoid HIV and other STDs.

U.S. women's efforts to avoid pregnancy and STDs and to have healthy and planned pregnancies are closely tied to their access to trained reproductive health providers. Periodically, The Alan Guttmacher Institute assesses how many and what types of family planning clinics receive public funding, and how many clients they serve. Jennifer Frost and coauthors report on such data collected from 3,117 agencies and 7,206 clinics that provided publicly funded family planning services in in 1997 to 6.6 million women--about two of every five women estimated to need publicly funded contraceptive care. When the total numbers of providers and of women served in 1997 were compared with similar data from 1994, few changes were apparent at the national level. At the local level, however, clinic turnover was high: About one in seven clinics either had shut down completely or had stopped providing reproductive health care, while a similar number of clinics either had opened or had begun offering such services.

U.S. providers of contraceptive care frequently prescribe the pill--not surprising, given its place as the most frequently used reversible method. But the pill does not have the same status everywhere: Most oral contraceptives could not even legally be prescribed in Japan until June 1999. In this issue, Masako Ono Kihara and colleagues report that just a few months before the pill's approval, most of the 630 respondents in a nationwide probability sample could identify it and knew its purpose. Views on the pill were split, though, with roughly the same proportion of respondents holding an overall positive impression (44%) as had a negative opinion (42%). Only 12% of respondents said they intended to use the pill if it was approved. Roughly one-quarter of the respondents did not appear to understand that the pill does not protect against HIV and other STDs, suggesting an urgent need to educate both men and women on this subject.

Finally, in this issue, Thomas Schindlmayr explores the ways in which the mass media, public opinion and international population assistance interact in a continuing cycle. The amount of funding made available by the U.S. government for population-related activities, he argues, is tied to a process in which media messages about population problems drive popular perceptions of those problems. These perceptions, in turn, can affect how strongly population-related funding is supported--at least when the public's views gather enough media attention to be communicated to policymakers. --The Editors