Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Poll spotlights girls' health problems at expense of boys

by Cathy Young

The Commonwealth Fund, one of the largest foundations in this country, recently released its "Survey on the Health of Adolescent Girls" - yet another catalogue of girls' woes.

I do not mean to make light of the problems of teen-age girls. And the survey, conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, does highlight serious problems. In grades 9-12, 14 percent had smoked more than one cigarette in the past week; 15 percent reported drinking alcohol at least once a month; 18 percent had used illegal drugs in the past month. Nine percent of all girls had been sexually abused. A quarter watch at least four hours of TV on school days.

But the funny thing about the survey is that despite the title, it included boys as well as girls. And the boys hardly get a clean bill of health. More of them drink and use drugs (and drive drunk). Fewer of them have experienced sexual abuse (4 percent), but abused boys are much more likely to say they have told no one about it.

It hardly comes as a surprise that girls are more concerned with weight. But there are surprises. Although more girls report "binging and purging," bulimic boys may be more troubled: They are much more likely to report having done so several times a day or a week.

Another item on which the gender difference is far smaller than one might expect is "Has a boyfriend or date ever forced you to have sex against your will?" Despite the not-quite-gender-neutral wording, the percentages of girls and boys who answered "no" were virtually identical. Eight percent of girls and 5 percent of boys said "yes"; 1 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys answered "Don't know." (These days, of course, "forced" may mean nothing more than "verbally pressured.")

Boys were also more likely to reply "Don't know" to questions about physical violence by a "boyfriend or date." Nine percent of older girls and 4 percent of boys had stayed in a relationship out of fear that the other person would physically hurt them; 3 percent of the girls and 5 percent of the boys were unsure.

Incidentally, very similar percentages of boys and girls experienced stress because of pressure to have sex.

Some of the findings suggesting that girls are worse off seem suspect. More girls said they had been physically abused at home. But the questionnaire did not define abuse, leaving it up to the teens. The results, contradicted by many studies showing that boys are more often subjected to severe beatings by adults, may simply indicate that our culture encourages girls to be far more sensitive to "abuse."

Or take suicide. More girls said that in the past two weeks they've thought of killing themselves but wouldn't do it. Similar numbers of girls and boys (3 percent and 4 percent) said they wanted to kill themselves. What the Commonwealth Fund materials do not mention is that four to five times as many boys as girls actually kill themselves.

More girls report depressive symptoms (though the gap is modest: 26 vs. 17 percent) and mention occasionally feeling stressed or overwhelmed. This may be a genuine difference. Teen girls tend to respond more intensely to family and social conflicts. But boys may also be less likely to report such feelings - even anonymously - being more reluctant to admit weakness.

The survey highlights the fact that more girls than boys said that at some point they didn't get medical care when they needed it. But "needing" care is subjective. Meanwhile, the finding that boys were less likely to have a regular doctor and to have had a medical checkup in the past year got short shrift. (The mortality rate for teen-age boys is three times higher than for girls.)

Clearly, most problems are shared by both sexes, even if the degrees differ. Yet the Commonwealth Fund report, its policy recommendations and the media coverage focus on girls. Is there a tendency in our culture to be more concerned with female afflictions? Yes. Does anyone benefit? Or does this mentality foster disregard for the problems faced by men and boys while encouraging women and girls to wallow in their personal misery?

Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network. Her column is published on Tuesday. You may write her at The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226. Her e-mail address is

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