Down with Abstinence…. and Pregnancy?

In July 2007 the NYTimes reported that abstinence education was suffering; after experiencing fairly-solid growth in places like Texas (where else?), it seems that despite attending abstinence hug-ins, and Bible readings, teenagers still went home to sleep with one another afterwards. Not because abstinence is bad (quite the contrary, it is the only method that 100% stops the spread of STDs) but because in Texas, abstinence education, by the admittance of abstinence promoting organizations themselves, was not about getting teenagers to abstain, but instead was a foot-in-the-door technique for promoting bigger ‘family’ issues, like opposing abortion and gay marriage.

It was a system doomed to failure. No one likes the bait-and-switch. At the time I remember thinking the campaign would succeed by being honest and not a covert agenda of publicly funded morality education.  More importantly, I feared that there would be a backlash and we would see the rate of teenage sex increase – and with it the rates of all the public-health problems associated with it: STDs (including HIV), pregnancy, and unplanned & hurried marriages. But a new report from the CDC shows I may have been overly pessimistic, at least when it comes to pregnancy.  Teen pregnancy rates in all the US states are at their lowest level ever reported (70 years) – including Texas.

However, teens are still having sex, and more of it – in fact, between 1991 and 2001 the percentage of high-school students who reported they had never had sex dropped from 54.1% to 47.4%.  This must mean that teenagers are being more careful about sex despite increased desire (or pressure) to have it.  So what caused that?

Some thank MTV, of all places.  Pregnancy prevention programs have used the teen-oriented network’s show “16 and Pregnant” as a tool for educating teenage girls about the drawbacks of being a teenager and a mother.  Others thank a broader approach to sex education: For example, in 2008, only 4% of Texas school districts had sex-education classes that taught the use of birth-control and other practices as a way to avoid pregnancy (that is, 96% of schools used abstinence-only curriculum).  In 2011 25.5% of schools included information beyond abstinence (or what is called abstinence-plus curriculum).  We might have to thank the internet and social media – where teens can find and trade knowledge about sex in a non-threatening and peer-accepting way; the drawback here is this information can often be incorrect. Finally, the popularity of the Twilight series and shows like (again) MTV’s “Teen Wolf” that promote abstinence and have popular characters that are virgins must help too.

Whatever the reason the effects are evident:  Approximately 80% of both male and female teenagers use birth-control (almost always a condom) during their first sexual experience (from “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive
Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008”, CDC, June 2010).

What I take from all of this – as someone that deals with college-aged teenagers – is that the kids are thinking, which is alright with me!