The focus is on males and females ages 15-19, which means the youngest teenager surveyed in 2002 would be too old for this one -- a complete turnover of teen populations. So what changed with this group, compared with their just-older peers? Pretty much nothing.
In the most recent survey, as in the previous report: The percentages of teenage boys and girls who say they have ever had sex was about 4 in 10. The percentage who said they'd had sex more than four times in the previous month was steady at about 1 in 10. The percentage of sexually active teenagers who said they'd ever used birth control was still pretty much all of them.
The top reason teenagers say they have not had sex also remained pretty constant across the decade: About a third of males and 40 percent of females cited "against religion or morals" -- and not concern about pregnancy or catching a disease.
The changes were at the margins. The percentage of teenagers who say they use some of the least effective forms of birth control (withdrawal and rhythm) went up a bit. The percentage of males who cited "don't want to get a female pregnant" as their top reason not to have sex dropped to 12 percent in 2006-2008 from 25 percent in 2002.
(In 2006-2008, among never-married teenagers, 14 percent of females and 18 percent of males reported they would be "a little pleased" or "very pleased" if they became pregnant now /got a female pregnant now.)
Here's the rubber-hits-the-road reason for the poll:
"The U.S. birth rate for females 15-19 years of age was 42.5 births per 1,000 females in 2007, based on birth certificate data collected in CDC/NCHS's National Vital Statistics System. That rate was higher than a number of other developed countries in the world. For example, according to the latest available data from the U.N. Population Division, the teen birth rate in Canada was 13, or about one-third of the U.S rate. The rate in Germany was 10 and in Italy, 7, less than one-quarter the U.S. rate."
What does the flatlining of survey results mean? I can spin some theories:
Sex ed simply can't compete with teenagers' hormones. The methods we're using to instill moral values in teenagers don't push abstinence hard enough. Kids lie to pollsters. The whole idea of teenagers as some unitary group that can be measured this way is wrongheaded -- different teen populations behave differently for their own internal reasons. Teenagers having babies is really not such a bad thing -- younger parents have the energy that older parents lack. Or there's only just so much that any adult effort can do to prevent teenagers from having sex in modern American culture -- and we're approaching that limit.
And so on. But I've not been a teenager in a long time, nor have I done research on the current sexual habits of current teenagers. I went looking for folks closer to the action for their take.
Let's start with Heather Corinna, owner and operator of a website called Scarleteen.com, which bills itself as "Sex Ed for the Real World" and aims to be a one-stop information source for young adults. (And yup, the site's name is an ironic reference to "The Scarlet Letter.")
Her e-mailed soundbite about the new survey: "Nothing in it surprised me or felt at all new."
She pointed out some limits to the polling. For one thing, it defines sex narrowly -- only activities that could, in principle, produce a baby are counted (including, btw, rape). And that, Corinna said, leaves out an awful lot of things that teens are actually choosing to do.
Like what? Any same-sex sexual activities, plus the broad range of possibilities for people of different sexes that do not involve putting one specific this inside one specific that.
"A whole lot of young people choosing to abstain due to 'morals or religious beliefs' are, in fact, having different kinds of sex, just not vaginal intercourse," she said.
Which means the study can't really assess teenagers' attitudes toward sex, broadly speaking. (Though to be fair to the authors of the study, making babies was really the peg for the work.)
And she suggested that the very efforts by adults to pressure teenagers into non-sexual behavior may be backfiring.
"If young people were given more breadth and space to find and articulate their own ethics and values, and supported if and when they didn't 'match' the beliefs adults around them or culture wanted them to have, we'd probably see more of them making sounder choices they felt better about, and thought about with more nuance, whether or not those choices meant having any kind of sex or not."
I sought another perspective from Debra Hauser, executive vice president of Washington-based Advocates for Youth ("boldly advocating for a more positive and realistic approach to adolescent sexual health").
Her e-mailed response pointed me at some of the other data in the report:
"The data show that we were making good progress from 1991 until about 1999 then the trends leveled off and in recent years even began to go in the wrong direction," she said. "While no one can prove cause and effect, there is some belief that the trends started leveling off as abstinence-only funding really began to take effect. These funds (Title V) first hit the streets through an entitlement program to the states in 1998."
So we know where she is coming from.
She found some half-full elements in the recent results, however: A modest uptick in the percentage of sexually active teenagers using more than one birth control method. A relatively small percentage of teenagers reporting casual first sex -- more than two-thirds of the girls and more than half the boys said their first experience was with someone they were "going steady" with.
For half-empty, she pointed at the result I already mentioned of an increase in use of frankly ineffective methods of birth control.
And then there's a result that's harder to characterize as good news or bad: Large fractions of boys and girls said they had mixed feelings about that first experience with sex, while somewhat smaller fractions were very happy about it.
"The data may reflect society's (and therefore young people's) ambiguity over sex -- many had mixed feelings and many really wanted it to happen," she said. "The older the teen the more likely he/she wanted it to happen. This is normal adolescent development."
Huber has her own glass-half-full thoughts about the survey results. For instance, teen sex didn't get more common between 2002 and 2008, she said. And it was lower in 2002 than it was a decade or more previously.
And the latest poll shows that even teenagers who had tried sex mostly weren't very active, she pointed out. Three-quarters of never-married teenagers had not had sex in the month before being polled. And as I've pointed out, only 1 in 10 said they'd had sex four or more times in that month.
Turning to sex education, she suggested the data actually supports those in favor of what she called "abstinence-centered" sex education. Almost every sexually active teenager used some kind of birth control, "so the problem isn't that teens don't know about contraception."
Although, I'd suggest that the data also shows that teenagers are inconsistent in their use of contraceptives. And that, as I noted above, some methods are ineffective at best. Be that as it may, Huber has a point. Most teenagers know enough about contraceptives to try them.
So what's a better approach? Huber, as you might expect, has a suggestion:
"A holistic approach that refocuses teens to see beyond the immediate in favor of delayed gratification," she said. "This is exactly what an abstinence-centered approach does. It encourages youth to set goals for their lives and then to devise intermediate goals that will make them successful. Adding sex to a relationship has the potential of derailing future aspirations."
The survey data showing a downtick in fear of pregnancy as a reason not to have sex is an indication of where sex education should be aimed, she said.
"A growing number of teens are not concerned if they become pregnant, so they don't really care if they use a condom or not and it suggests that they are not informed about the challenges of a teen birth/pregnancy," Huber said. "There is a need to switch the conversation from 'me' to 'what's best for the child' and 'what is the best environment in which to bring a child into the world.' "
Although I wonder how many teenagers are less familiar with the challenges of parenthood than they are of the proper use of contraception.
For a final perspective, let's hear from Jimmy Hester, coordinator of True Love Waits, a program of the Southern Baptist Convention.
From a religious perspective, the numbers aren't really the point, he said.
"While studies about teens' sexual behavior sometimes have contradictory findings and conclusions, we believe the true measure of success is changed lives, and that every person who keeps an abstinence commitment until marriage is a victory," he said.
Well, yes. But surely the goal of a formal program is to maximize success? And sure enough, TLW is in the process of tweaking its program. A meeting held a year ago in Nashville, Tennessee, was devoted to coming up with a retooled version of the program.
The top suggestion: Increase parental involvement.
"While the message in society today is one of encouraging teen sex, they noted that many parents are in denial as to the scope of the problem and the ways their children are affected," he said.
Really? Parents are in denial? Frankly, I'm not seeing that among the parents I know. They may be in panic or at a loss for what to do, but "denial" isn't where I'd put 'em.
In any case, a new version of True Love Waits is about to be rolled out that will "include a variety of markers students experience from childhood to young adulthood" and "guide parents and church leaders to take advantage of these markers and treat them as teachable moments on purity."
By the next federal survey, we may get to see if the new version makes a difference.
When I look at the report, I'm reminded of a wonderful old Peanuts comic. A character named Pigpen is being berated by one of the girls in the strip. She hands him a mirror, hoping to shame him.
"On the contrary," he says. "I didn't think I looked that good!"
Maybe that's the proper response to this new survey?
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