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New study shows engaging boys helps to prevent unintended pregnancies

Gender equality and sexual equality concept with male and female icon symbols

Published: 26 September 2023

Engaging boys is key to positive sex education. It is also successful in helping to prevent unintended pregnancy. That's according to the results of an NIHR-funded study.

The full findings have been published today to mark World Contraception Day. This follows an earlier release of results in the Lancet Public Health last year (2022).

Queen’s University Belfast led the study called the Jack trial. Researchers analysed a sex education programme for 14-year-olds that explicitly targeted boys. The programme raises their awareness and improves their communication skills to help prevent unintended adolescent pregnancy.

The results showed the programme had a positive effect on all students’ sexual health knowledge. It demonstrated support for progressive male role attitudes, and intentions to prevent unintended pregnancy. 

Positive effect

The results also showed the programme had a positive effect on contraceptive use. Among adolescent boys and girls who were already sexually active, those who received the programme in schools were significantly more likely to use contraception than those who didn’t. Young people who received the programme were not more likely to become sexually active.

The trial demonstrated engaging all adolescents early through relationship and sexuality education is important so that, as they become sexually active, rates of unprotected sex are reduced, and that doing so is likely to be cost-effective.

Lead author of the study, Professor Maria Lohan from the School of Nursing at Queen’s University Belfast, explains: “The UK has the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Western Europe. Adolescent pregnancy is often thought to be an issue for young women alone, but it is crucial to engage young men early in conversations around sexual health and rights alongside young women.  

“Sex education in schools is the best opportunity for young people to learn and explore gender and sexual identities, and respectful and positive relationships. In this study, we have focused on positive masculinities to educate boys in schools about their role in healthy, consensual sexual relationships.”

UK-wide trial

The UK-wide trial involved 66 schools with over 8,000 students, making it the largest of its kind. It was the first to be conducted across the four nations of the UK, and the first to include faith-based schools. 

The programme begins with an interactive video named “If I were Jack”. It was co-designed with young people and policy makers. The video informed by pilot work in faith and non-faith-based schools across the UK.

The video enables young men and women to put themselves in the shoes of a young man who might be faced with fathering a child at a young age. It gets young people to think about how this can be avoided.

The findings also showed the intervention to be cost-effective in reducing the health and social care costs of adolescent pregnancy. An increase in contraceptive use as young people become sexually active means a reduction in unintended pregnancies. This also leads to a reduction in sexually transmitted infections. This would, in-turn, reduce healthcare costs over a 20-year period.

Professor Lohan adds: “Not only is the intervention effective in promoting positive sexual health and wellbeing but this is also a cost-effective intervention. The cost per student is less than £5.50 to deliver because the programme provides teachers with materials they need and want to help talk to young people about safe and positive sexual relationships as well as materials to include parents in the conversation.  

“The projected cost-savings over a 20-year follow-up period arise from equipping young people with knowledge and skills to avoid an unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. This is not only a saving in terms of healthcare costs but also increases young women’s opportunities to finish school as well.”

The study was also supported by researchers from:

    • Cardiff University 
    • Glasgow University
    • University College London
    • the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

NIHR’s Public Health Research (PHR) Programme funded the study. For more information about the study, please visit the NIHR Funding and Awards website

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