Here’s a cool new batch of statistics from the CDC: Teen pregnancy rates are at the lowest they’ve been since 1946. But it’s not because teens are having less sex–by age 19, seven out of ten girls have already had intercourse–it’s because they’re using birth control. Like, a lot of it. And they’re using it more every year.
These are really, really encouraging statistics regarding teen pregnancy rates. But they don’t mean a thing if we don’t also consider why they are the way they are–and we’d be fooling ourselves to think it’s because teenagers have suddenly lost their surging sex drives. Because there’s something at play now that hasn’t been in previous years: access and education, whether in school or in the media, about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. In short, we’ve finally found the solution to teen pregnancy: birth control.
Teen pregnancy, which is estimated to cost around $10.9 billion in public health care costs each year in the United States, has long had lawmakers and parents wringing their hands and hunting for solutions; not only is it expensive, it’s problematic. Kids of teen parents are less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to be abused or neglected. Unfortunately, more often than not, adults tend to want to stop the sex, not the risky sexual behavior.
Junior high and high school students are educated about the benefits of abstinence (Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker disappointingly just signed an abstinence-only bill into law) instead of condom use or other methods of birth control, because, the theory goes, if you teach kids about sex, they’ll have it. But here’s the thing about abstinence: It’s a fantasy. And here’s the thing about abstinence-only education: It doesn’t work. Abstinence education is basically what teens in more modest eras received from their parents (the “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t do it” approach)–and clearly, it didn’t work. Teenagers are going to have sex. And when they do it, they need to be learn about how to do it safely and with minimal risks, like pregnancy and disease.
Another argument against comprehensive sexual education in the classroom has always been that parents should deal with it at home. Unfortunately, many parents frequently provide incorrect or inaccurate information to kids. Additionally, most parents don’t actually want to deal with it–a Kaiser study found that only 7% of parents want sex ed kept out of schools. The rest will be pleasantly surprised to hear that, in all likelihood, your kid is getting more and better sex ed than other generations. Since a large chunk of government funding was allocated for the purpose in the 1990s, the number of schools that offer sexual education has grown to at least eight in ten.
But whether kids are getting their information from school, their parents, or the media (16 And Pregnant doesn’t exactly glorify the life of a teen mom, and MTV’s new show, Savage U, which features polarizing but pro-sex advice columnist Dan Savage is sure to teach some teens a few things, whether parents like it or not), the fact is that they seem to be having sex…and learning about contraceptive.
Consider this: Use of some kind of contraceptive has increased every year since 1985. Between 1985 and 2004, birth control use went up 76% among teenagers. Between 2005 and 2008, it went up another 84%. Now, 78% of females and 85% of males report using contraceptive during their first sexual encounter. And many of these women–as many as 2 million women under the age of 20–are receiving their contraceptive (as well as sexual health counseling) from publicly funded services, like Planned Parenthood.
Arguing that teens will have more sex (and thus, more babies) if they receive comprehensive sexual education in the classroom is great, in theory. But these statistics definitely seem to show that, in practice, when kids know about their own sexual health and options, and have access to inexpensive counseling, they’re more likely to use their knowledge and, as a result, take fewer risks. The moral high ground is a great place to talk about what kids should or shouldn’t be doing–but in the real world, if you want to prevent teen pregnancy, you’ve got to teach kids what their options are when they inevitably have that first encounter.
Image: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock and the Guttmacher Institute