“Every time Niki says something is going on with her body — whether that’s poop, pee, hunger, soreness or whatever — I feel the fear of a human growing,” say 30-year-old Patrick*. His anxiety is generally warranted, given that his girlfriend, Niki, isn’t on birth control, and they sometimes have sex without condoms. But for some couples, even those who religiously use birth control, pregnancy paranoia — especially for men — is overwhelming.
In fact, some men are so afraid of their partner getting pregnant that they avoid having sex entirely. In an online health forum, one young man describes how he hasn’t been able to let go of his pregnancy anxiety since his girlfriend played a prank on him on April Fool’s Day by telling him she was pregnant. He says he hasn’t had sex with her in the three months since. Even still, any time she’s sick, he fears she may be pregnant.
According to Kimberly Resnick Anderson, a certified sex therapist, extreme paranoia regarding pregnancy often comes down to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anderson has treated men who, despite their partners being on the pill or them using a condom, are still overwhelmed with anxiety about pregnancy. They’re unable to trust themselves, their forms of protection or their partners. “It can even render a man sexually dysfunctional,” says Anderson. “It becomes an irrational fear at that point.”
Men with OCD can often find relief in cognitive behavioral therapy and even SSRIs, a form of antidepressant that can help limit compulsive thinking. “SSRIs can do a great job turning down the volume of these obsessive thoughts,” says Anderson. She herself doesn’t prescribe medication, but says she uses talk therapy to help her patients challenge irrational beliefs and explore the history of their anxiety.
If OCD isn’t a factor, extreme paranoia is sometimes a matter of trauma. Some may have had a friend or relative whose life was thrown off-track by an unplanned pregnancy, or may fear the repercussions from a religious or authoritarian parent. Others have long internalized cultural messages that tell them “if they conceive out of wedlock … they’re gonna burn in hell,” Anderson describes. Another type of paranoia comes from men who “feel marginal in terms of supporting a baby” and “not ready for an intimate mature relationship.” She says they “want to take every precaution against conception because of they’re afraid of being an adult.”
Before seeking therapy, some men turn to online forums to assess the normalcy of their fears. BodyBuilding.com, for example, features a thread from 2006 titled “Anyone extremely worried about get [sic] a girl pregnant?” The original poster states that this concern is the only reason he doesn’t have sex, and that he’s had to make excuses to avoid sex with his previous girlfriends. “I just like my money too much to give it up to some chick with my kid,” he writes. Respondents to the thread tried to reassure him that condoms are particularly effective, and that if they fail, the morning-after pill is an option. Others shared in his anxiety [all sic]:
- “yes, i’m worried, which is why i don’t have sex with my gf of 4 years. there’s plenty of other things you can do without penetration. i won’t be having sex until i get a vasectomy. condoms and birth control are never 100%, and i’m not taking any chances.”
- “I am extremely virile so I have to [be] unusually careful. The pill is not always an option and vasectomy is not for me. Condom and vaginal film currently.”
- “i have a friend that is so nervous about getting a girl pregnant that his gf is on birth control, they use a condom, he pulls out and he makes her douche every other day. talk about bein paranoid.”
According to Anderson, some men are so paranoid that even oral sex is off limits. Others are afraid that precum will get through clothing and make its way inside a woman.
Some seek treatment for these anxieties themselves, while others are brought in by their partners, who hope Anderson can assure them they’re safe. Because women traditionally have to bear the responsibility for avoiding pregnancy, their partner’s fears can be a means of control or distrust. Though, in many cases, men simply don’t understand how their partner’s birth control or reproductive cycle works.
Lucy, a college student from Florida, cites her high school boyfriend’s pregnancy paranoia as one of the reasons they broke up. Though she and her boyfriend always used condoms and he pulled out, once a week after her period was due, she agreed to take a pregnancy test. “The test was negative, and I thought that was it,” Lucy says, as she occasionally had irregular periods. “I figured we could move on, but he got me another. So I took another. It was negative. Then he got me one more. He started searching the statistics of false negative pregnancy tests. I remember sitting on his bathroom floor crying into my shirt so his parents couldn’t hear me through the thin walls.”
All in all, Lucy’s boyfriend made her take seven pregnancy tests, which he stole from a local pharmacy. “He yelled at me, shamed me and guilted me into taking the tests. It was like my feelings on the matter were irrelevant because he put himself into a potentially bad situation to get these tests because neither of us could afford them.”
Despite each test coming up negative, Lucy’s boyfriend still told her that for her abortion, she’d have to appear before a judge in a town four hours away so that his family wouldn’t find out. (In Florida, people under 18 are required to notify their parents of their abortion or receive a judicial waiver.) Following this ordeal, Lucy went on a planned family trip overseas. Each day she reached out to her boyfriend, but he wouldn’t respond until she got her period.
In Lucy’s case, her high school boyfriend’s pregnancy fear was a means of exerting control over her body, Anderson says. “If a man doesn’t trust his partner because he thinks she’s trying to trap him, then there’s probably something else going on. It could be withholding and manipulative, too. Men can hide behind it as a way to determine when sex is going to happen.” (Unfortunately, men like this usually aren’t the type to seek help from a sex therapist like Anderson.)
At the core of all of these varieties of pregnancy fears is a widespread ignorance regarding women’s bodies, sexual health and conception. Sex education in the U.S. has woefully undereducated all genders about how contraceptives work and how pregnancy occurs. For instance, it’s not often taught in schools that the five days prior to ovulation and the day of ovulation itself are the only times during a woman’s cycle in which she can get pregnant. Thus, plenty of men (and women!) aren’t sure exactly what that means.
If the cause is indeed OCD, no amount of reassurance can be guaranteed to help. But Anderson says there’s yet another reason some of her patients suffer from pregnancy paranoia: “They feel that their penis is so powerful that they have a magic sperm that they’re still going to impregnate someone,” she says. “It’s a delusion, a preoccupation.” Again, here’s where education could help. Though we often think women are to blame for infertility, sperm counts in Western countries have been dropping since 1973, causing what some call a “sperm crisis.” So even if a guy wanted to knock a woman up, given the modern man’s sperm quality — thanks to obesity, inactivity, stress, cell phones, chemicals and older parenthood — it might not be that easy anyway.
*Name has been changed.