Great Info for Sexual Health Clinics and Educators Who Work With Young Men

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There are a lot of reasons that sexual health messages and services tend to focus on women. Since many of the people who develop sexuality education and health services are women, they often focus on issues and topics that are specific to girls and women. Health care traditionally ignored women’s needs and concerns, so organizations sprang up to address that. Sexism and male privilege have often resulted in resistance and anger towards boys and men, making providers less willing to offer them help. And many boys and men have internalized the idea that asking for help, dealing with health issues (rather than “toughing it out”), and not knowing everything about sex isn’t masculine, so they may avoid getting the support they need.

Unfortunately, this tends to create a self-reinforcing loop. Boys and men don’t seek help because they don’t see it as relevant and because they don’t feel welcome. Providers don’t do outreach or offer services to boys and men because they don’t have enough clients coming to them for it and because they don’t feel comfortable working with them.

Of course, this is a huge sweeping statement, and just as there are plenty of guys who will go to the clinic despite the models of masculinity that often hold folks back, there are also lots of organizations and providers who are skilled and compassionate when working with men. But there’s a pattern of disconnection between the people who want to help and the people who need help. And that gets in the way of efforts to lower STI & unplanned pregnancy rates, increase sexual health awareness, or offer sex education. And since most of the women who seek sexual health services have sex with men, at least some of the time, less effective support for men means more difficulties for women.

Fortunately, this is changing and there’s a fantastic guide at Bish Training to make it easier. It explains some of the reasons that young men often act in the ways they do, offers friendly and honest advice for how educators and health care providers can work with them, and has plenty of great tips that are easy to implement.

One of the things that I especially like about it is the “masculinity donut.” The idea is that masculinity is like a jelly donut. The dough is the externally-projected image, like being tough, having lots of sex, and being competitive. The jam is the feelings and needs that are common to most young people, like not wanting to get hurt, fear, and wanting to be cared for. When young men (or really, most men of any age) don’t feel safe letting others see the inner feelings, they use the external mask to protect themselves. Often very visibly and theatrically.

This is really important for sexual health educators to understand because the visible part of the donut is often the difficult part of them to deal with. They see young men being raucous or acting macho and they don’t want or know how to deal with it. But until they do, guys aren’t going to change how they act. The folks at Bish Training believe that:

The trick is to make attending sexual health services feel like a masculine thing to do. We can’t do this by reconstructing society to enable young men to re-think their masculinities but we can do it by making our services more masculine (or doughy) places to visit. If we do this then the very act of attending our services will be an acceptable expression of masculinity.

This is a perfect example of meeting people where they are, rather than blaming them for not being where you want them to be. And once you meet someone where they are, it’s often possible to help show them how to get to some new places. Some of their tips include things like:

  • being able to talk about the differences between types of condoms so that men will be more willing to use them
  • offering useful information in multiple ways so there’s more of a chance of it being absorbed
  • helping young men feel less anxious, which makes it easier to retain information and reduces the sorts of macho behaviors that they may engage in to cover up their discomfort
  • practical suggestions for working with men in groups, if they come in with some friends
  • using direct and clear language without using slang
  • how to challenge difficult behaviors fairly

It’s really an amazing resource. There are a few references to programs or slang that are specific to the UK, where the organization is located, but it’s not much of a barrier.

Anyone who offers sexual health services or sex education to young men will get a lot out of this guide. Give it a read and pass it on.

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