Reviews > Culture

Boys will be men

Culture | Is a new "culture of restraint" lowering the teen pregnancy rate?

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

A REPORTED DROP IN TEEN PREGNANCIES IS REAL and dramatic. And it's not because of abortion. More and more teenagers-and particularly boys-are changing their attitudes about premarital sex.

From 1990 to 2000, according to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, teenage pregnancy dropped by 28 percent. The drop among black teenagers was even higher, 31.5 percent. (The current pregnancy rate averages 83.6 for every 1,000 teenagers.) The Guttmacher researchers estimate that 75 percent of the drop is due to increased use of contraceptives, but that 25 percent is due to more teenagers embracing abstinence.

Although most pregnancy-prevention programs focus on girls, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein found that a great deal of the credit should go to boys, whose behavior shows the most startling changes. The conventional wisdom had been that boys will be boys and nothing can restrain their sexual appetites, but half of all male high-school students now say they are virgins, up from 39 percent in 1990. Sexual activity among teenage boys is down even in poor minority neighborhoods, where the problem of teen pregnancy has always been the worst.

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It has now become socially acceptable to be a virgin. According to a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study, 92 percent of all teens ages 15-17 believe that being a virgin in high school is a good thing. What motivates them to believe this, despite what the media and the entertainment industry are telling them? Researchers credit "a conservative religious movement" among teenagers.

And yet, media attention has recently focused on another study that found that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is virtually the same among teenagers who take an abstinence pledge and those who do not.

Columbia University's Peter Bearman studied the sexual behavior of 12,000 adolescents over a period of six years. He found that the STD rate for those who made a virginity pledge was 2.8 percent, compared with 3.5 percent for those who did not, a statistical dead heat.

This sparked headlines across the world, to the effect that abstinence pledges are ineffective. But that is not what Mr. Bearman found. The pledges did delay sexual activity. The median age for first having sex among girls who did not take the pledge was 16.7. For those who took the pledge, it was 19.9. Boys waited about the same time. (For black females, the ages were 16.3 for nonpledgers and 18.6 for those who pledged.) Pledgers also married at an earlier age.

"The delay effect is substantial and almost impossible to erase," wrote Mr. Bearman. "Taking a pledge delays intercourse for a long time.... The pledge effect is not a selection effect. It is real and it is substantial." This has a major impact on lower levels of teen pregnancy.

But what about sexually transmitted diseases? First of all, it is evident that those who keep their vows of chastity will not get them. The problem is not the pledge but a failure to keep the pledge. Of course, abstinence works, both to prevent pregnancy and to prevent diseases. If teenagers still have trouble staying abstinent, that is an argument for more abstinence education, not less.

But it is hard to resist temptation, and many pledgers eventually fall off the wagon. Mr. Pearson says that when that happens, many of the pledgers are less prepared to take measures against STDs, such as using condoms. (Never mind recent evidence that condoms do not, in fact, prevent STDs, except for AIDS.)

Mr. Bearson's most disturbing statistics were that 99 percent of the teenagers who never pledged to remain a virgin have sex before they marry, and that 88 percent of those who did make the pledge eventually engage in premarital sex.

So despite the progress, we have a long way to go. It is not inevitable for adolescents to have sex. They can control their raging hormones, and they increasingly want to. They are working to create what The New York Times calls a "new teenage culture of restraint."

The adults who make money from teenagers by selling them sexually charged music and other kinds of entertainment could help by showing some of that same restraint.

Christians know that the will is fallen, that simply choosing to be good will never be successful for long. Teenagers need the constant forgiveness of the gospel to bear fruit in sexual purity. The culture could also become more encouraging of early marriage, which is how most times and places have solved the problem.

At any rate, whatever the statistical flukes, teenagers are fighting their own culture war, and they deserve a great deal of credit.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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