Back in July the Trump administration cut more than $200 million from about 80 programs nationwide that are working to prevent teen pregnancy. This decision was lost in the other political turmoil surrounding the White House this summer, but the consequences of the cuts are significant.
Here are important facts according to the Guttmacher Institute:
- Almost half of American teenagers are sexually active (that means almost half admit to being sexually active).
- The average age for American teenagers’ first sexual experience is 17.
- About 15% of American teenagers report having sex for the first time prior to turning 15 years of age.
- American and European teenagers are equally active sexually, but European teens are more likely to use birth control and have lower teen pregnancy rates.
- According to a Centers for Disease Control survey about 10% of teenagers had sex with multiple partners during the twelve months prior to the survey.
- About half of all American sexually transmitted infections (STI) occur in those aged 24 and younger. That age group incurred about 9.7 million infections in 2008 and also accounts for a little more than 20% of HIV infections.
- Adolescents account for about 15% of all unintended pregnancies.
- In 2013 American adolescents had approximately 110,000 abortions.
- Abortion is pregnant teenagers’ choice only 24% of the time. They choose to take the baby to term 61% of the time, meaning more times than not these teenagers become single mothers.
- The number of teenage girls using contraception rose from 48% in 1982 to 79% in 2011.
- In 1980, 118 per 1,000 teenaged girls became pregnant each year but in 2013 that number reached the record low of 43 pregnancies per 1,000. However, the pregnancy rates vary significantly by state. New Mexico, for example, has a teen pregnancy rate of 62 per 1,000 whereas New Hampshire’s rate is only 22 per 1,000.
- Between 1985 and 2007 the number of teenagers having abortions dropped by at least a third.
That’s a lot of information.
Bottom line? A large number of teenagers are sexually active. A fair number get pregnant. Some have abortions. But teen pregnancy and abortion rates have declined in recent decades? Why? And why are teen pregnancy rates declining more slowly in some states than others? Several factors likely explain the differences in teen pregnancy rates, but concluding that it is because kids in some areas have more sex would be inaccurate. The evidence is that kids have sex at the same rates pretty much everywhere.
Let’s compare two states with opposite rates. Texas has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country and Colorado one of the lowest, and Colorado’s rates continue to decline steadily.
In Texas a 17 year old who wants contraceptives must have parental permission, and that doesn’t change even if a teenager has a child at an earlier age. Even after having a child a 17 year old would need parental permission to obtain birth control. Further, 58% of sex education in Texas is “abstinence only” and another 25% of school districts offer no sex education at all. Yes, that means about 83% of Texas schools teach abstinence only or no sex education at all. The remaining 17%? They teach “abstinence plus”. Oh, and research indicates that a good bit of the information provided in abstinence only programs is either false or misleading (that, for example, condoms are ineffective). They also rely on fear and shame, and neither of these works. Obviously.
In recent years Colorado has moved quickly to change sex education curricula in public schools, making it more age-appropriate and comprehensive. Also, in Colorado the state actually subsidizes long acting, reversible birth control for those in lower income brackets and, you guessed it, teen pregnancy and abortion rates have plummeted. In fact the teen pregnancy rate was cut in half during the first five years of the Colorado Family Planning Initiative. That means that a large number of teenage women who might have become pregnant will now be able to attend college or pursue careers, build families, and be more productive members of society than would likely have been the case had they become single mothers.
There has been a modest decline in the number of teenagers having sex (again, this is self-reported so the statistics may be inaccurate), but the decline in the number of kids saying they have sex doesn’t come close to explaining the steep decline in the teen birth rate since the early 1990’s. Numerous factors contribute, but most significantly about 80% of kids report using birth control the first time they had sex. Kids are also using more effective forms of birth control than in the past. Interestingly, a 2016 Brookings Institute report also concluded that such TV shows as “16 and Pregnant” (on MTV) led to a decline in teen births because these shows accurately portray the consequences of unprotected sex.
In America we have this idea that if we tell kids not to have sex, they won’t. If we just ignore the topic of sex and don’t discuss it with our kids they won’t become interested. If we don’t tell them about the birds and the bees they will only be interested in chocolate. This is just a dumb attitude. Yes, in an ideal world kids would wait until they were old enough to understand the consequences of sex, but a good many just don’t, never have and never will. The urge to have sex is powerful (thank goodness or I would not be here to write this and you would not be reading it).
We should stop pretending that telling kids to abstain from sex works. Evidence overwhelmingly condemns abstinence only education as ineffective and supports comprehensive sex education. So instead of reducing funding to programs seeking lower teen pregnancy rates, we should increase spending for those programs. The cost is minor compared to the social and emotional costs of young girls having unplanned and unwanted babies or, even more troubling, choosing to abort those pregnancies.
Parents of girls need to be especially aware of the rocky landscape for girls and young women when it comes to sex. If I had a daughter I would not let her go to college (high school?) without discussing the issues in Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex. This book made me fear for my nieces and young women I know — education and self-knowledge is key. The self esteem, health, resilience, and happiness of a generation of girls and women is at risk.