“Less sex, more contraception.”
That’s the story behind the continued drop in teenage pregnancy rates. According to the latest data, teen pregnancy rates are the lowest they’ve been in two decades.
Condom use is up among male and female high schoolers. Virginity is “in” among boys and girls. The number of high school-aged boys reporting they have “never had sex” has jumped from 39 percent in 1990, to 51 percent in 2001, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All of this is good news, but it is not “new” news. The “responsibility” trend has been evident for a while. But while mainstream media images of teens and sex typically slant toward the negative, a page 1 Sunday New York Times headline (March 7) read: “Behind the Falling Pregnancy Rate, a New Teenage Culture of Restraint.”
Wow. A front-page story about a positive trend among teens. A story that balances data and expert musings about the reasons for the decline with real-life interviews of young people.
It is a story I have been waiting for since 1984, when Marian Wright Edelman persuaded me to kick off the Children’s Defense Fund’s pregnancy prevention campaign at a time when pregnancy rates were on the rise, sex education was under attack, African-American teens were being portrayed as promiscuous losers, and the notion that hope was as necessary a contraceptive as a condom was a new idea.
It is a story that gives teens credit for sorting through the conflicting messages and options about sex to find solutions that work for them, a story that acknowledges teens have done what adults thought they couldn’t – handle their urges by both delaying sex and being more careful in their sexual activity.
Experts have their theories about the reasons behind this trend, citing, among other factors, welfare reform, more information, the fear of AIDS and a decade of messages that have been sinking in.
The real reasons, however, are explained by the teens. Teens are deciding for themselves how to deal with their needs for intimacy, acceptance and sex by bearing in mind the alternatives. For some, that means having oral sex or using contraception. For others, it means adhering to a virginity oath. For many, it means trying to dispel the disturbing images they see about sex and about their gender in the media.
Teens are considering how to live their lives in ways that celebrate the present while protecting the future. They see the costs of too early sex, pregnancy and child-bearing, and they see the personal and financial benefits of waiting.
Like many of my teen pregnancy prevention colleagues, I traded in my pregnancy prevention hat for a youth development one, deciding that the challenge of increasing young people’s life options needed as much attention, if not more, as the challenge to make information and contraceptive services more accessible.
Youth workers and organizations often are the next level of engagement in terms of supporting teens by picking up where traditional public health programs leave off. We work to expand a young person’s horizons beyond identifying the risks of sex, to actually give youth a different perspective on what it means to act and live like a responsible adult.
I believe that the current trends are the result of a range of sometimes competing factors that resulted not just in more access to information and services, but more access to options: options for exploring sexual feelings without having sex, options for reflecting on the consequences without being lectured, options for saying no without being ridiculed, options for talking with adults without being judged, options for getting out of the gang, off the street or back to school.
I believe that the trends continue to go in the right direction not because teens have been convinced to make different decisions, but because teens have been given the options and support they need to make decisions differently – with more facts, more confidence and more conversations with partners and adults.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the researchers and advocates who stayed the course on the information and services front should be congratulated, as should the youth workers and advocates who had a strong hand in providing young people with safe and supportive places.
Let’s take a bow. But let’s continue to help teens see the alternatives.
Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This column and links to related readings are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.