Acton Institute Powerblog

Teenage Sexuality On The Decline, Or is it?

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The New York Times today ran an Associated Press story reporting that teenage sex rates have hit a new low. This is good news. The teenage birth-rate has hit a record low as well.

In 2005, 47 percent of high school students — 6.7 million — reported having had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. The rate of those who reported having had sex had remained the same since 2003.

Of those who reported having had sex during a three-month period in 2005, 63 percent — about 9 million — said they used condoms. That is an increase from the 46 percent reported in 1991.

The teenage birth rate in 2005, the report said, was 21 per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 17 — an all-time low. The rate in 1991 was 39 births per 1,000 teenagers.

However, there may be other factors that mask the fact that teenage sexual activity hasn’t really changed at all.

(1) Teenage birth rates are lower because more and more teens have easy access to abortion and birth-control. There is no social stigma assigned to being a sexually active or pregnant teenager and baby-boomer parents have no scruples about encouraging abortion and birth-control for kids, unlike any other generation of parents in American history. This is a moral problem.

(2) Teens have redefined what constitutes as sex. While the rates of intercourse may have declined the study leaves unanswered questions about the rates of other forms of sexual activity including oral sex, pornography, etc. “Hooking up” can include all sorts of sexual activity that is not specifically intercourse. The myth, of course, is that only intercourse negatively affects teenagers psychological, emotionally, and spiritually.

The Washington Post reports that nearly half of all teens engage in oral sex.

The story touts school sex education as responsible for the decline. While this may be good rhetoric, sex education in school does not reduce teen pregnancy. In the 1970s, when sex education began, the pregnancy rate among 15-to-19-year-old females rose from 68 per thousand in 1970 to 96 per thousand in 1980. With sex education teenage birth rates rose 29 percent between 1970 and 1984.

The key determiners of sexual health for teens includes two basic elements: (1) spiritual and moral formation about the nature and function of sex in God’s design that enhances love and human dignity, and (2) loving, parental involvement in openly discussing sexuality and laying down morally-grounded expectations that communicate clearly what is in the best interest of the child in the long-run. If our nation had more of this teen sex rates would decline precipitously.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Very provocative post. I’d like to respond to various points you make separately.

    Your first point implies that teen birth rates are lower because teen abortion rates are presumably higher, due to easier access to abortions and oral contraception. For this theory to be true, access would’ve needed to have gotten easier since 1991, but if anything abortion access (particularly for teenagers) has become more difficult and costly in that time. Since 1991, many states have adopted parental notification and mandatory delay legislation that have made it more difficult for teens to get abortions, not easier. And we see in other statistics that 1.4 million abortions were performed in 1991, compared to approximately 850,000 in 2003, and the proportion of abortions performed by teens fell from 21% to 18.8% (see Table 1 of the 2003 Abortion Surveillance of the US published by the CDC [1]). These trends are at odds with your suggestion that teen pregnancy had fallen because of higher abortion incidence, since total abortions and teen abortions have both fallen along with teen births and teen pregnancies. It appears that something is causing teen sex, teen pregnancy, and elective abortions to fall in the US.

    Besides, if anything, access to abortion should increase teen sexual activity, not decrease it. In their 2002 NBER working paper, “Abortion as Insurance” [2], economists Douglas Staiger and Philip Levine model abortion access as like an insurance policy against unwanted pregnancy. In the model, making access easier (ie, “cheaper”) results in women choosing a higher pregnancy probability, since now they don’t have to take as much precaution against getting pregnant in the first place. Since 1991, as I said before, most states have adopted more restrictive parental involvement laws and mandatory delay laws, and some researchers have found these laws to be associated with reduced teen gonorrhea rates (see Klick and Strattman’s paper [3], for instance), suggesting that these laws did indeed change adolescent sexual behavior in the direction suggested by Levine and Staiger’s model.

    There are other possible explanations for the change over this time. For one, the AIDS epidemic had become particularly severe and problematic by the early 1990s. Unprotected sexual intercourse was no longer merely associated with unwanted pregnancy, but for the first time, also with certain death. The AIDS epidemic therefore could be part of why condom use rates are so much higher today than 15 years ago, as well as why sexual behavior has been pushed down. In one of my papers [4], I estimated the effect of AIDS mortality on gonorrhea rates and find that for every 100 men who died of AIDS, there were 7 fewer cases of gonorrhea (per 100,000). This does not appear to be the consequence of merely the most promiscuous men dying from AIDS, and thus slowing gonorrhea transmission. The co-infection rates for AIDS and gonorrhea are low. Rather, it appears that AIDS literally scared people into safer forms of sex – such as reduced promiscuity, increased condom use and abstinence. Other studies have found AIDS to have increased condom use and reduced the number of sexual partners people reported having (see Ahituv, Hotz and Philipson [5]).

    Regarding your claim that sex education did not reduce teenage pregnancy. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you’ve not established your point simply by pointing out the fact that teenage birth rates and pregnancy rates rose from 1970 to 1980. From 1973 to 1980, abortions rose from 600,000 to 1.3 million. Couldn’t legalized abortion (more akin to your earlier point) have a more likely role in explaining the rise in teen births and teen pregancies? For instance, we know that legalized abortion and easier access to oral contraception among teens was associated with increased gonorrhea incidence (see Klick and Stratman [6] and Yoeli [7]), which suggests increased non-marital sexual activity, particularly among teens. Since so many things changed besides access to sex education changed over the 10-year-period you note related to sexual behavior, we should not infer anything by noting the negative correlation between sex education and birth/pregnancy rates at that national level. The proper counter-factual is whether sex education reduced teen births and teen pregnancies below what it would’ve been during a time in which various forces are pushing teen pregnancy and teen births up. That requires a more sophisticated econometric exercise so as to parse out the various competing influences.

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