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Teen Sex in America: Is No Change Good or Bad?

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Abstinence-based sex education remained front and center as a tool of public policy through the past decade, with a particular emphasis on convincing unmarried teenagers to forgo having sex.

And that makes the results of a survey recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention particularly interesting. The report is titled "Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008." It's a follow-up to a series of similar surveys, the last taken in 2002.

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."

For a very different perspective, let's turn to Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.

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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13 Comments

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chebella333

I think it's nuts that we expect thousands of years of evolution to change simply because, for the past 1 or 2 hundred years, social practice has changed. Before the early-ish 20th century, most people were married and bearing children by late teens or early twenties. Why is it that simply because we now say that people these ages "aren't ready", we expect their desires, needs and drives to change? I've always thought it was rather silly that, for my grandmother, it was the height of womanhood to be married at 17 and to have 3 children by 21...but had I done the same thing, I'd have been considered promiscuous? Simply because an uptight social mores presently say that sex under age 18 isn't appropriate doesn't necessarily make it realistic and/or true.

June 30 2010 at 2:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

Teens may be physically ready for sex but they are not emotionally ready. When the break up comes the results are devastating. Would you let an 11 year old drive a truck???

June 21 2010 at 5:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michaelfinchint

We need to give Parents of these teenagers a hand if they do whatis necessary with wisdom to help them in raising of the Child that is coming We need to teach the teenagers a little more God fearing Morals. Male and female Relations are not kept like in past days there needs to be push for helping keep Parents together with their Children unless Violence was play in Pregnancy. And this should go across the board even to Adult Parents the same If they are responsable to have child they should be made Responsable to raise such together with exception to violent behavior. Now to raising children the Book written for such that still remains true to test of time is Bible and any lw against a parent takes second place to that as law This does not mean attacking a child is right And many still think Physical is wrong. Legally there should be many options a parent uses for correction but beating maring or breaking a child should never be one A good spanking or scolding is purposeful with correct Reasoning for such this is what is wrong with america today we walked away from our roots we need to bring back some good old responsibility for action. yet the Parents of the new Parent to be needs to take responsability also for what has happened and try as best to help them as they can.Help them to Climb Help them to Walk Strong so this country stays Strong Dont throw the Children having Children Away Embrace with understanding these new Parents show them calmly how top raise the children right Learn from your and their Mistakes Because Children do make mistakes and so do Parents Raise them Better with help from the new parenttill the new Parent can stand o their own Remember you were once in the same Shoes Raising a young child now your young one must take on the same responsability as you did beside you as an adult mentally with no excuses...

June 19 2010 at 9:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nicolette

how about.. a certain amount of sex by teens (who are after all, physically mature) is and has been normal for hundreds of thousands of years and no amount of social/religious strictures is going to eliminate it. That said, numbers without a break-down by race or groups is meaningless. Maybe there should be less fear of teen sex and more fear of pervasive political correctness even in the way we collect/disseminate health data.

June 19 2010 at 7:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sealynnleaf

The article does not mention the abortion rate between the USA and other countries. Just because more children born in USA by teens than a select few other countries, what about our drop in abortion in comparison to European countries? Remember, other nations have different definitions of abortions and individual life for premature births leading to death. The abortion rate plus birth rate and miscarriage, combined in a percentage to equal the real number of pregnancy issues amongst teens.

June 19 2010 at 4:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mccuerc

Interesting, but all the discussion of causation is mere speculation. That may be the way that we engage in public discourse about real issues, speculations sometimes hardened into dogma against speculation, but it's not very useful.

"according to the latest available data from the UN 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 US rate."

The USA is not a unitary state but includes many differing groups. Of the 3 examples Canada is almost as diverse as the United States, Germany and Italy are almost homogeneous. (The Italians and Germans might beg to differ, but to an outsider they look homogeneous.) As a first really rough (and possibly wrong)observation the rate of teen birth decreases as states get more homogeneous. That gives us something that can be tested! Are there statistically different results for cognizable groups in the USA? Do Baptists have fewer teen births or Jews or Catholics or Hindus or Buddhists? Is there a rich versus poor chasm in the results? Is the ethnically Italian population of the United States similar to or different than the native Italian population? Do Orthodox, conservative and reform Jewish populations differ in a statistically significant way?

If there are differences then we can start a search for causation. My suspicion is that "causation" will turn out to have many different contributors rather than being a unitary phenomenon. For example religiosity may discourage teen births in one group but encourage it in another. The tendency of the wealthy classes to protect their wealth should result in fewer teen births, but will wealth encourage or discourage sexual activity?

That sounds like a lot of data and a lot of work. It is. It should produce a few (rather boring) Ph.D. dissertations and some good articles in obscure articles in social science learned publications. In short it won't be sexy. But only when that work is done will we be even able to venture a guess as to what an effective social response to the issue is. Or even if we want to make a response.

June 19 2010 at 11:30 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mccuerc's comment
hitch44hitch

Good point, however it doesnt matter what race, or if they are illegal or not... its happening in our country so its our problem. Our goverment is letting people in and we are doing nothing to stop it.

June 19 2010 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
denavictor5

"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 UN 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 US rate."

You guys are misreading the stats--You read the above and scratch your head as you forget about the article you just read last week that stated that Caucasian Americans will be a minority by 2050. Get it? These are NOT your blonde, blue-eyed Soccer girls getting knocked up. "Traditional" Americans (read: white) are NOT having enough babies to keep up with the demographic trend of LATINO teen pregnancy (and mostly illegal or American-born "anchor" babies of illegal immigrant teens). Ooops! No wonder...You can't compare what's going on in the USA to other developed nations, because they are not (YET! Stay tuned for Islam!) experiencing the demographic shift the way we are. The majority of teen girls having babies in the USA come from non-developed countries. Perhaps the writer was too PC to point this out.

June 19 2010 at 10:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
druid0621

With no change in teen sex, perhaps it's time to end the education programs. There is little sense in funding a program that hasn't had an impact. But this is what is wrong with government - once a program is implemented, it is impossible to end - even if it is a failure.

June 19 2010 at 10:08 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
momprayn

My experience/observations from my own life and as a counselor at a pregnancy crisis clinic: it's the age old problem of human nature. As a teen, I noted most, including myself didn't do it because of religion mainly plus the "stigma" & problems of getting pregnant and not married. It helped a lot when most women/girls said "no" to sex with their boyfriends. It also helped in that it weeded out the guys who didn't really "love" them - only wanted sex. We were taught that if the guy really loves you, he won't leave just because you won't do that and he'll marry you...which was true. However, that was when birth control pills, abortion on demand was not around. I formed my religious views when I was preteen & was very determined not to have sex before marriage because I wanted to do what God/Jesus wanted me to & didn't want to hurt them. BUT, it was still very hard at times, if you're normal. Takes self-discipline, strong beliefs with God's help, self respect, minimal insecurity. Unfortunately, females are prone to feel insecure and look to males for attention & self worth, etc. As humans, we feel like the "bad stuff" won't happen "to us". Most did it because they didn't want to lose their boyfriends - got abortions because they told them to. One of the reasons not mentioned in this article for not worrying about it in the last 30 years is because of the availability & very easy abortion. Many women are told by their husbands/boyfriends to get abortions as a means of birth control. Some women get pregnant on purpose in hopes to make their boyfriends marry them & is a "bond" there, even if they leave. Emotions & "feelings" rule. It isn't because of the unavailability of birth control. In fact, just the opposite. That's all just common sense and you don't need a survey to tell you that.

June 19 2010 at 9:52 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
vobox3343

Sadly, too few teens ever tell the truth - adults, also.

June 19 2010 at 9:10 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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