A recently released survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control asked teenagers between 15 and 19 about their sexual conduct and attitudes. As National Public Radio put it, the survey showed “little change in the numbers of teens having sex, but it [showed] a big change in attitudes toward premarital sex.”
While this “big change” has many experts dismayed, no one ought to be surprised. It is the inevitable outcome of our ideas about sex and teenagers.
The survey found that 42 percent of the teenagers surveyed had had sex at least once. That represented a slight drop from the last time teenagers were surveyed in 2002.
If the difference in the percentage of kids having sex was “statistically insignificant,” as the report said, other differences were anything but.
The one statistic that has gotten the most attention is a change in teen attitudes towards out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Between 2002 and 2008, the percentage of kids who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “It is OK for an unmarried female to have a child” jumped from 50 to 64 percent. One quarter said that they “would be pleased if they or a partner had a baby.”
For 15 years prior to 2005, teen pregnancy rates declined. But since then, they’ve been rising gradually. The result is weeping and gnashing of teeth among the sexual education crowd.
In words of the CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “progress in reducing teen pregnancy has stalled.”
Well, if it’s “stalled” it’s because contemporary sexual education and efforts to prevent teen pregnancy are constrained by two very bad ideas: the first is a strong aversion to telling kids that sex outside of marriage is wrong.
Whether it’s because most adults nowadays don’t really believe it’s wrong, or because of their own sexual history, they will tell kids anything but this.
Parents will tell them to “be responsible” or tell them to “be safe” or even, under duress, tell them to postpone sex until some unspecified date. But too many adults won’t say, “Don’t do this until you are married.”
The other bad idea is treating teens like adults who, armed with “the facts,” will make the right choices. Any neurologist or social scientist or parent of a teenager will tell you that this isn’t so.
Education based on these bad ideas doesn’t stand a chance against an oversexed culture that regularly depicts celebrities as successful single moms.
What does stand a chance is faith—and the worldview it produces. Among teens who hadn’t had sex, the most common reasons were religious and moral beliefs. Faith and morals have replaced fear of pregnancy as the main reason kids abstain from sex.
That makes sense. Technology and culture have made it easier to prevent pregnancy and removed the stigma. That leaves what kids believe about right and wrong as the only effective restraint—not only against premarital sex but also against teen pregnancy.
If we won’t summon the courage to tell our kids the truth—that sex outside of marriage is wrong—then we may have to settle for them telling us even less pleasing news.