Call for more chastity ignores facts of life about sex education

The Des Moines Register published an amazingly ill-informed op-ed this weekend by Tom Quiner, a social conservative activist in Des Moines. Advocating for more chastity and less promiscuity, Quiner ignores some basic facts of life about sex ed.

The hook for Quiner's piece is a letter a 19-year-old virgin penned to an advice columnist. How and when this woman decides to become sexually active is none of our business, but for Quiner it's a jumping point for claiming "we pay a huge cost when chastity is discarded as a societal virtue." He cites the high rate of sexually-transmitted disease among young people and asserts that "unbridled sex" too often leads to abortion. He concludes,

Two philosophies clash in the public square on what to do about the fallout of the sexual revolution. One camp proposes risk-reduction. They believe kids are going to have sex no matter what anyone says, so adults should teach them to do it safely.

This camp's philosophy has gained dominance in our communities over the past generation as sex education is increasingly offered to younger students with an emphasis on "safer sex" practices. The idea is arm kids with information on the risks of sexual activity, give them easy access to condoms and other forms of birth control, and expect them to behave like adults in bed. [...]

We tried the approach advocated by the risk-avoidance camp. By any metric, it has failed. No matter how many condoms we throw at the problem, we are awash in a cycle of disease and death that makes Ebola look like a bruised knee.

Perhaps it's time to listen to the second the camp. They believe in adopting the same ideal promoted in other public-health interventions, such as no-smoking campaigns. These campaigns don't encourage kids to "smoke safely." They call on them to stop smoking entirely.

STDs are a serious public-health issue, but Quiner seems unaware that many of the states with the highest STD rates are in the "Bible belt." Better information about safe sex won't eliminate impulsive, risky behavior among teenagers, but it will reduce the incidence of STDs.

Likewise, when Quiner says sex education including information on contraception has failed "by any metric," he ignores that teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates have reached historic lows in recent years. The teen pregnancy rate was 51 percent lower in 2010 than at its highest point in 1990. Additionally, between 2008 and 2010

increasing proportions of 18-19-year-olds reported having ever had sex, yet fewer of them became pregnant. The likely reason is improved contraceptive use and use of more effective methods.

A certain percentage of unintended pregnancies do end in abortion, but the cause of pregnancy is usually unprotected sex, not the "unbridled" sex that displeases Quiner. And while the teen pregnancy rate has declined in all 50 states,

substantial disparities remain among states: Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Vermont have consistently had the lowest teen pregnancy rates (28-37 per 1,000 in 2010), whereas Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have had the highest (69-80 per 1,000).

None of the states with the lowest rates of teen pregnancy mandate abstinence-only sex education. On the contrary, public schools in places like Massachusetts and Minnesota offer medically-accurate, age-apporpriate sex ed. Instead, the states with the highest teen pregnancy rates are those where governments spend money on the abstinence-based sex ed people like Quiner prefer.

Researchers trying to figure out why fewer young women are getting pregnant have concluded that contraceptive use is mostly responsible, rather than delayed sexual activity.

In 2007, researchers from the Guttmacher Institute and Columbia University examined data from two rounds of a large-scale government survey, the 1995 and 2002 cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The researchers concluded that the vast majority of the decline in teen pregnancy-86%-was the result of improvements in contraceptive use, including increases in the use of individual methods, an increase in the use of multiple methods and a substantial decline in nonuse.6 The remaining 14% of the decline could be attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.

When broken down by age, the decline in teen pregnancy among 18-19-year-olds was entirely attributable to improved contraceptive use, because the overall proportions who had ever had sex or were engaging in sexual activity did not change between 1995 and 2002. Delaying first sex played a greater role for younger teens, accounting for 23% of the decline in pregnancy among 15-17-year-olds. [...]

In 2014, Guttmacher researchers analyzed subsequent cycles of NSFG data and found that the decline in teen pregnancy since 2003 had little or nothing to do with teens' delaying sex.7 Nationwide, the proportion of teens who had ever had sex did not change significantly between 2003 and 2010 (46% and 45%, respectively). This finding is supported by another large-scale study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Although limited to adolescents in school-based settings (in grades 9-12), the YRBS found no significant change in the overall proportion of students who were sexually experienced or currently engaging in sexual activity between 2001 and 2013.8

Instead, the decline in teen pregnancy in recent years can be linked to improvements in teens' contraceptive use. Comparing reports from two periods of NSFG data (mid-2006 to mid-2008 and mid-2008 to mid-2010), Guttmacher researchers found moderate increases in teens' use of any contraceptive method, highly effective methods and dual methods (i.e., condoms and hormonal methods simultaneously).9 Specifically, the use of hormonal contraceptives at last sex among sexually active women aged 15-19 increased from 37% in 2006-2008 to 47% in 2008-2010; dual method use increased from 16% to 23% over the period, and the use of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods (i.e., the IUD and implant) increased from 1.4% to 4.4%.

Moreover, between mid-2008 and mid-2010, increasing proportions of 18-19-year-olds reported having ever had sex, and yet fewer of them became pregnant. The likely reason, again, is improved contraceptive use.

Would it be better for many young people to delay sexual activity until they are more mature? Maybe. Will we achieve that outcome through a stronger societal focus on "chastity" rather than medically-accurate sex ed? No way.

  • Bible Belt?

    It seems like the states with low teen pregnancy rates are cold and the ones with high rates are warm. This could be more of a factor than religious impact on contraceptives. I don't think Sports Illistrated has ever done a "Winter Coat" Issue in Minnesota.  

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