Sex is a hot topic these days – but perhaps not in the way you might think.
In gender-equal Sweden, women’s health and women’s bodies are increasingly on people’s radar – the natural way, not the Photoshop way. Recently Swedish women even got their very own word to describe female solo action.
But is Swedish sexual gender equality all bark and no bite?
Recent research from Uppsala University shows that Swedish female university students are engaging in more and more risky sexual behavior: condom use is on the decline despite earlier sexual debuts and the number of sexual partners is on the rise.
“It is a factor for concern that women infrequently use condoms when having sex with a new partner,” Tanja Tyden, one of the key researchers who compiled the study, stated.
The study from Uppsala University was based on a survey of female university students, and revealed that the number of lifetime sexual partners had increased from just 4.0 in 1989 to 12.1 in 2014.
While the number itself may not be cause for concern – and indeed may be proof of modern Sweden’s gender equality – the corresponding decrease in condom use is a problem, Tyden said.
“The development is worrying. More young women must demand that their partners use a condom.”
Why aren't men using condoms?
One study showed that most of the young men surveyed “worried more about their personal consequences than about the consequences for their partner”.
Elina Berglund, co-founder of Swedish natural birth control app Natural Cycles, isn’t surprised.
“Men are accustomed to women using the pill and not having to do anything themselves,” she remarks. “Even though men are always fertile and women are only fertile about six days a month.”
Berglund pointed out that using condoms just six days a month should be a relatively minor burden for men, compared with women having to take a pill every single day.
When presented with the statistics, Anna Blom – a midwife at RFSU, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Equality – is quick to note that there are many factors involved.
“There is a general image that men just don’t like condoms. But the issue is more nuanced than that,” Blom tells The Local.
“You want to be secure in that moment. Men want to be able to handle the pressure and perform when they have sex. And they might not know how to use condoms the right way, and have problems with them.”
Blom says that if men feel comfortable with how to use a condom correctly, they are more likely to actually use one, no matter what the situation.
However, she also agrees that men should do more when it comes to contraception.
“It’s true that most of the burden is on women’s shoulders,” she admits.
“And men need to buckle down and realize that condoms are the only way they actually have to protect themselves, not just against sexually transmitted infections, but also against involuntarily becoming a parent.”
Knowing your body
Another issue with birth control is a lack of knowledge about available options and about women’s own bodies, Blom notes.
“Generally women know a lot about birth control here, because they research online and ask friends,” she says. “But when it comes to understanding the information in terms of your own body and what might be better suited to you, it’s more difficult.”
Sweden isn’t the only country grappling with the issue. Earlier in June, the UK’s Telegraph newspaper launched an editorial campaign called #TakeBackBirthControl, aimed at helping women better understand contraception.
Surveys revealed that more than a quarter of British women didn't know “what hormonal contraception was doing” to their bodies, and one-third of women said they also felt that they were expected just to “put up” with the side-effects, whatever those may be.
Fear of hormones
Sweden doesn’t fare much better.
Research from Uppala University reveals that one-third of female university students in Sweden worry about the effects of hormonal contraception, particularly mood changes – but continue to use the pill anyway.
But Swedish women are starting to shy away from the pill, and investigate alternatives in larger numbers.
Statistics from Swedish health authorities have shown that fertile Swedish women are buying 14 percent less birth control pills than they did 10 years ago, and in city regions the numbers are even higher.
“There has always been a fear of hormones, and many people ask about hormone-free methods,” Blom says. “But in the 1960s women were just happy to get pills at all; it was part of women’s sexual liberation. But now women want to share the responsibility with men.”
A natural solution?
Berglund with NaturalCycles agrees that something has to be done about outdated gender roles when it comes to pregnancy prevention.
In addition to educating women about their cycles, the natural birth control app is gently nudging women to be proactive, helping them “take back birth control” by educating them about their individual cycles.
Elina Berglund and Raoul Scherwitzl, founders of Natural Cycles.
The app’s algorithm rapidly learns from a woman’s daily temperature readings to identify when she is and isn’t at risk of pregnancy with a simple colour-code system, red means a women is at risk of pregnancy and green days are proven to be 99.9 safe.
“But we also send a condom along with every thermometer in the post,” says Berglund. “We want to remind women that they – or their boyfriends – must take precautions on the ‘red days’ given in the app indicating a risk of pregnancy.”
Women can keep track of their cycles with intuitive graphs and cycle statistics that provide users with all the information they need to manage their reproductive health naturally yet effectively.
“The education aspect is a critical element, particularly given the general lack of knowledge about fertility,” Berglund adds.
“It helps you get to know your body better so everything is easier when you’re ready to start a family,” says Berglund, who switched from the prevention to planning programme herself and is now a proud mother.
Sharing the burden
The studies from Uppsala showed wide discrepancies in the women’s knowledge about fertility. When asked at what age fertility significantly decreases and it becomes more difficult to have children, responses varied greatly.
“This group of women would benefit from more information about age-related risks regarding reproduction and more importantly their own fertile potential,” the report from Uppsala states.
“That’s one reason why individual visits are so important,” Anna Blom at RFSU explains. “Some women are most fertile at age 25, but others can still get pregnant at age 40.”
But either way, whether on the pill or using hormone-free birth control, Blom feels that Swedish women need to demand more of their partners before getting in bed:
“Men need to pull themselves together and realize that they also have a responsibility to protect themselves and use condoms the right way.”
This article was produced by The Local in partnership with NaturalCycles.