America’s Pointless “Teen Sex” Squabble

Mike Males, c Youth Today, December 2001

                Youth Today’s October cover story and its chief source, Advocates For Youth (AFY), credited the 10-fold difference between U.S. and Dutch teen birth rates to Holland’s better sex education, contraceptive services, and acceptance of teenage sexuality. Like America’s larger policy debate, AFY and the story omitted the only factor that matters--the huge differences in child poverty between the two nations.

                The internationally-calculated poverty rate among Dutch youth is about 5%,  one-third that of U.S. youth (17%). The Netherlands’ annual teen birth rate is 5 per 1,000 girls ages 15-19 and near-zero among younger teens.

                AFY and sex-ed backers don’t need to junket Europe to find low teen pregnancy levels. In suburban Marin County, California, for example, only 5% of white teens live in poverty. Their birth rate also is 5 per 1,000 girls ages 15-19, and near-zero among younger teens. Meanwhile, in agricultural Tulare County, California, where 18% of white teens are impoverished, the white-teen birth rate is 50 per 1,000--10 times that of white Marin teens. Forty percent of Tulare’s Hispanic girls are poor; their birth rate tops 100, like Guatemala’s.

                Where U.S. youth enjoy low, European poverty rates, they display low, European birth rates; conversely, Third-World poverty yields Third World fertility. ETR Associates’ detailed 2000 study of California communities found teen birth rates so powerfully tied to prior youth poverty rates that it’s hard to imagine what could be more important. Yet, when not ignoring poverty issues altogether, America’s teen-sex lobbies pretend wealthier girls get pregnant just as often but abort more. Not true. Clinic surveys find poorer teens have abortion and miscarriage rates several times higher than richer teens.

                In any U.S. city, you can create a formula from the poverty rate and adult birth rate that predicts each race’s, community’s, and era’s teenage birth rate with astoundingly close precision. For 80 years, in fact, the teen birth rate has paralleled the adult birth rate with uncanny precision. Add the inconvenient fact that adult partners 20 and older collaborate in most “teen” pregnancies, and America’s tiresome squabble over sex-versus-abstinence education, sex on TV, and teenage morality needs massive overhaul. Some modest suggestions:

                First, reframe today’s going-nowhere debate in ways neither abstinence champions nor sexuality educators would like. America should join Europeans in accepting teenage sexuality and comprehensive sex education. Give abstinence folks equal time to preach “pet your dog, not your date” (which always sounded creepy to me). Put condom dispensers next to virginity pledges.

                Second, honestly confront the real “mixed message” kids face: their adult models bellow morality but indulge promiscuity. Ever-pious Religious Right Republicans and Family Values Democrats reaffirmed that lesson when they hypocritically defended their own slutty chieftains’ tawdry affairs, girlfriends’ abortions, “sham marriages,” $200 hookers, abandoned love children, and below-the-Beltway sleaze. American grownups suffer the highest unplanned pregnancy rates of any Western society. Our average marriage lasts 80 months (relationships are more expedited). “Character” education is just lying to cover up real adult behaviors.

                Third, treat adults like teens. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, useless to date, should issue new “Sex Has Consequences!” posters and public service announcements depicting Bill Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, Dan Burton, Gary Condit, Laura Schlessinger and other big-time philanderers slashed-over with epithets like “DIRTY,” “REJECT,” and “PRICK.” (Why not? The National Campaign thought it was okay to plaster those words on its recent ads featuring teens.)

                Fourth: treat teens like adults... in every way. That means fully sharing America’s bountiful resources with young people to reduce disgracefully high youth poverty levels and deficient health services. Teens have sex like adults, they have sex with adults, and their choices reflect poverty and lack of opportunity.

                Buried in AFY’s report is the fundamental point:  Europeans “view young people as assets, not as problems. Adults value and respect adolescents and expect teens to act responsibly. Governments strongly support education and economic self-sufficiency for youth.” That’s 99% of preventing “teen pregnancy.” Meanwhile, Americans quarrel over 1%.


Mike Males is a Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and University of California, Santa Cruz, sociologist, webpage