Our Newest Ambassador

I wasn’t going to say anything about Bristol Palin’s new job, but then a friend sent me a column in today’s New York Timesabout Ms. Palin. In case you missed this news item, Ms. Palin (18 and nonmarital mother of baby Tripp) has become a teen ambassador for the Candie’s Foundation, which is supposed to educate us about how we can fight teen pregnancy. To market its message, the Foundation is selling tank tops for $15 with the slogan, “I’m Sexy enough . . . to keep you waiting.” (Disclosure: I should note that I tottered around in my 3-inch Candie’s high heel shoes several decades ago, but have given them up for shoes from The Walking Company.)

The overall message from the website is that teens should wait. On its webpage, “Tips for Teens,” the Foundation asks, “What should you know?” and then replies:

Did you know that over 90% of teens believe that it’s important that they get a strong message about waiting to have sex? In fact, 60% of teens who have had sex wish they had waited longer and 75% don’t see anything embarrassing about admitting that they’re virgins. Clearly, teens in the 21st century are recognizing merit in putting off sex and the consequences – both physical and emotional – that are attached to sex.

I think encouraging teen abstinence is incredibly important, even more so now that my younger daughter has just joined the ranks of teen-agers. But I think it is even more important not to let encouraging abstinence get in the way of discouraging pregnancy. The U.S. has the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed work — three in ten women will experience pregnancy before the age of 20, a very scary statistic. And those rates are almost certainly higher than they need be because of the energy we devote to encouraging abstinence. As Ms. Palin so clearly, vividly, and painfully shows, abstinence is not realistic.

June Carbone and I have observed that there is no evidence that abstinence-only education in fact makes abstinence until marriage more likely, or produces a decline in either teen or non-marital births.

Some studies show that abstinence-only education leaves teens less prepared for the sexual relations they later develop, with a corresponding increase in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases; and that teens who participate in abstinence-only education appear to begin sexual activity at roughly the same ages as teen who do not participate in the programs and to be just as likely to have sexual encounters before marriage.

In April 2007, a comprehensive, congressionally authorized review of federally funded programs found that youth who participated in abstinence education programs were no more nor less likely to have abstained from sex than those in a control group who had not received the abstinence education programs. While religion can make a difference — religiously devout teens do begin sexual activity a year later on average than their less devout religious counterparts who profess the same religious beliefs – even the most devout overwhelmingly do not abstain until marriage.

The dramatic story of the nineties was a national decline in teen births, a decline most dramatic for the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. That decline in births occurred at the same time teen pregnancy and abortion rates fell, and while it involved greater abstinence during the early teen year years, the greater declines came from more effective contraceptive use among older teens. In the last few years, teen births have crept back up. Commentators attribute the increase to some combination of the worsening economy (a bright future is the best contraceptive), increasing amounts of abstinence-only education (the poorer the woman, the more likely she is to receive no information about contraception before her initial sexual encounter), and lesser access to contraception (the most effective methods require a prescription).
“Do as I say, not as I do” has never been an effective message.

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1 Response

  1. Nate Oman says:

    “I think encouraging teen abstinence is incredibly important, even more so now that my younger daughter has just joined the ranks of teen-agers.”

    Why exactly? If abstinence-only education has no impact on behavior, then getting out that particular message would be irrelevent. Do you have some evidence that there is value to abstinence-plus-contraception has some benefit that a message of contraception does not?