By Warren Throckmorton, PhD
In 1988, George Michael won a Grammy award for his album Faith. This disc featured sexually graphic songs, the most controversial being ‘I Want Your Sex.’ Apparently teens were listening to Mr. Michael. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control surveyed teens and learned that 50% of males and 37% of females aged 15-17 had gotten sex sometime during their short lifetime. While a generation of teens was learning to just say no to drugs during the 80s, many of them were saying yes to sex.
Now comes the same CDC reporting on a new bunch of teens and the findings are encouraging. Amid the current maelstrom that is the public and political debate over sexual education in the schools, the CDC released a report showing a significant decline in the numbers of adolescents who have ever had intercourse. Among teens aged 15-17 only 30% of females and 31% of males reported engaging in sexual relations in their lifetime. These numbers collected in 2002 were down from 1995 when 38% of girls and 43% of boys reported sexual relations. At least for males, there is a significant downward trend from the days of ‘I Want Your Sex.’
Pundits and experts reacting to these results have unfortunately divided along ideological lines. Those favoring contraceptive based sexual education programs point out another finding of the CDC report: condom usage among those having sex is on the rise. Eight out of 10 teens who are sexually active are using contraception. So apparently these programs are having some impact. Abstinence only proponents are quick to point out that abstinence programming is apparently also getting results.
So who is right?
I suspect both groups can claim some credit. While I favor abstinence programming in educational settings, my reading of the research tells me that when adults teach that contraception is a good idea, teens listen. Perhaps there is a clue there for those on both sides to examine. If you missed it, let me elaborate.
Not all teens of course, but apparently many do. In fact, it appears from the new survey, even many adolescent males can cut through the hormonal haze and actually reflect upon their choices before they act. I think this is a crucial observation. Having established that teens listen, it is critically important to ask: what should we tell them?
First, we should make sure these research results are made widely known. Despite the message of MTV and network television programs, everybody is not ‘doing it.’ Less than one-third of teens are having sex before they reach age 18. Spreading this message puts peer pressure back in the hands of teens who encourage self-control and self-respect.
Second, early sex is not usually ‘good sex’ or even ‘safe sex.’ Of those teens who do have sex, a significant majority report dissatisfaction and disappointment with the experience. Especially for teen girls, ‘safer sex’ is not often emotionally safe. In fact, when asked, the vast majority of girls who are sexually experienced say they wished they would have waited. According to a 2000 poll conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, nearly two-thirds of teens who had initiated sexual activity said they wished they would have delayed their decision. Among girls, the results were striking: 72% of girls wished they would have waited.
Third, policy makers should not be intimidated by those who say teens won’t abstain. We now know there are good scientific reasons to abandon moral neutrality in sex education. Teens will abstain if they are given good reasons to do so. Furthermore, in the recent CDC research, nearly 40% of teens said they avoided sex because of religious reasons. There are two important lessons here. One is that faith based initiatives are reaching this important subset of teens; and the second is that multiple exposure to information (abstinence) across multiple settings (home, school and worship center) presents a consistent message that is being heard.
Fourth, delaying sexual behavior until marriage seems to be a prescription for long term sexual fulfillment. This is in direct contrast to the values left over from the ‘free love’ era that freedom and sex combine to produce the deepest form of sexual satisfaction. Teens need to know that sexual adjustment is highest for those in married, monogamous relationships. Not all teens will wait until marriage but it appears that those who do are not being cheated out of anything.
Of course not all teens are going to agree with or pay attention to the advice given in abstinence only health education. The vast majority of these teens are using contraception. This highlights a point for the grown-ups in the sex education discussion: if teens are clearly listening to us, why can’t we listen to the data and work together to better prepare the next generation?
Answering this last question will determine what teens hear from health educators and parents. The choice is not insignificant. As a culture, do we want to see teens delaying sexual involvement even longer? Do we want to see those percentages of sexually active teens drop more? Do we want those who are sexually active to know the consequences of their choices? Then we must tell them what we know.
They are listening.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Counseling at Grove City College (PA). His essays have been published in over 60 newspapers and on numerous websites. He is also the producer of the documentary I Do Exist concerning sexual orientation change. He maintains DrThrockmorton.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.