Young gender gaps
March is Women’s Month, a good time to reflect on some of the statistics that came out of the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS) conducted by the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI). The survey involved more than 19,000 Filipinos aged 15 to 24, from throughout the Philippines, and some preliminary statistics were released in February.
The YAFS figures show a narrowing gender gap for sexual and nonsexual behaviors which, on the surface, may reflect growing equality between males and females but, on closer analysis, suggest that perhaps there is growing inequity that urgently needs responses from families, schools and communities.
The 2013 YAFS was significant because of many new questions—around diet for example, and self-perceptions—but because they were new, comparisons cannot be made across time. Four vital areas do have data that were collected in previous YAFS: smoking, drinking, drugs and premarital sex.
Smoking, drinking, drugs
I wrote earlier on the trends in smoking, which show a very welcome decline among young Filipinos, but which I feel still needs more push to drive the rates down.
There is a sharp gender gap in smoking, one which is actually good. Among males, the percentage of current smokers went from 40.4 percent in 1994 to 37.6 percent in 2002 and 35.4 percent in 2013. Among females, the figures were 4.2 percent in 1994, increasing to 5.9 percent in 2002, and then declining to 4.7 percent in 2013. While there is a wide gap between current male and female smokers, note that the figure for female smokers in 2013 is still higher than in 1994.
The percentage may seem very low for young female smokers but considering that teenage pregnancy rates are very high, an issue which I’ll discuss in a while, we are talking here about risks for both the young mother and the fetus. Mothers who smoke have higher risks of having premature births, miscarriages and underweight babies. We may also need a separate antitobacco campaign for females, to point out that smoking also increases risks, later in life, for cervix cancer and one type of ovarian cancer.
For drug use, there is a welcome gender gap. Among males, current drug users moved from 10.9 percent in 1997 to 19.2 percent in 2002 and then dropped to 7.1 percent in 2013. For females, drug use has been consistently low, at 1 percent in 1997, almost tripling to 2.8 percent in 2002 and then dropping to 0.8 percent in 2013.
Let’s move on to alcohol use. The percentage of current drinkers among males declined from 60.5 percent in 1994 to 61.1 percent in 2002 and 53.2 percent in 2013. Among females, the figures were 16 percent in 1994, 23.6 percent in 1997 and a slight decline to 21 percent in 2013. The gender gap between males and females is narrower for drinking than for smoking.
We need to pay more attention to alcohol use among young Filipino women because drinking can increase risks around sexual behavior due to impaired judgement. Back in 1995, I worked with psychology professor Theresa Batangan on a project looking at young Filipinos’ sexuality in Manila and Iloilo, and we had many interviews where both males and females talked about how alcohol made it “easier” to ask for, or give, sex.
In the 2013 YAFS, researchers also asked current drinkers, for the first time, if they had ever taken alcohol to the point of passing out, and those who said yes were 18.4 percent of males and 5 percent of females. I will discuss binge drinking in a future column, but you can imagine what can happen when a young girl passes out while drinking.
We come now to premarital sex, where the gender gap is narrowing very dramatically. In 1994, 26.1 percent of males reported having had premarital sex. This increased to 31.2 percent in 2002 and 35.5 percent in 2013. Among females, the figures were 10.2 percent in 1994, increasing to 16 percent in 2002 and to 28.7 percent in 2013.
Some of my non-social-scientist friends commented that the gap probably never existed, asking how could such a situation come to pass where 26 percent of males and only 10 percent of females were shown to have had premarital sex (as in 1994).
There are a number of possible explanations.
First, it is well-known among social science researchers worldwide that males tend to overreport sexual behavior as part of their macho bragging, and females tend to underreport because of social norms around female chastity. No doubt, females may be more willing now to report premarital sex, and that itself is an indicator of social change.
Second, the “discrepancies” in the figures relate to the patterns of sexual partners. Note that the survey covered only young people, specifically aged 15 to 24. People do not confine sex to those within their own age groups. Young men, for example, have been known to go for older (and more willing?) women.
Now even if the partnering is within that age group of 15 to 24, you could have a smaller group of young females who may be more willing to have sex. This could include, but would not be limited, to sex workers. Ironically, our moralistic norms could contribute to this. Again in the 1995 research I was involved in, young girls would talk about how the stigma of having had premarital sex could lead to low self-esteem because of social ostracism—frequently using the metaphor of the broken jar (basag na ang banga)—and leading to more premarital sex, or even entering sex work. I never forgot one case where the parents actually pushed a young girl into prostitution, saying she was “broken” anyway.
I should mention a last source of partners among young men. In the 1995 research we found people talking about different binyag or baptisms. After the first baptism as a toddler, the subsequent ones are sexual, and young men would talk about a second baptism with an older woman, for example, and then a third with another male, and then a girlfriend, and then finally, the woman they would marry.
How then should we look at the 2013 YAFS statistics with 28.7 percent of females and 35.5 percent of males having had premarital sex? At first blush, it could indicate greater gender equality. But there is another statistic from YAFS that would challenge that assumption: The 2002 YAFS found that 6.3 percent of young adult females had begun bearing children. This doubled to 13.6 percent in 2013, which means young women are having premarital sex but do not seem to be aware of contraception—or, if they are aware, are unable to insist on protecting themselves.
Far from becoming more “liberated,” our young girls are ending up being exposed to more sexual risks. UPPI will release more figures in a few months about other sexual behaviors like casual sex and FUBU (“friends with benefits,” and I’m using the polite translation of the acronym) which will offer more material for discussion around the gender gap.
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