Driving down many highways in the US, one sees billboards that read, “Virgin: Teach your Kids It’s Not a Dirty Word” or “Wait for the Bling.” These billboards, funded by conservative organizations, perpetuate a myth that teen sex is a problem, a crisis and even an epidemic.
Conservative organizations are not the only ones that have bought into this mythology. Recently, a staffer from a prominent pro-choice organization was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “While we would all like and hope and prefer that young people abstain from having sex, that is not what many young people, unfortunately, are doing.”
Is the fact that teens are having sex really so unfortunate?
People are having sex at every age. Sometimes it is safer. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is with informed consent. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s healthy. Sometimes it’s not.
People are also, therefore, experiencing the outcomes of sex at every age. The outcomes can be both intended and unintended. The outcomes can be both physical and emotional. The outcomes can be positive or less than favorable.
People in every age bracket have sex, get pregnant, have abortions and have children.
Sex and the outcomes of sex are not exclusively experienced by teens. Actually, according to the Guttmacher Institute, teens have the lowest rate of sexual activity (46 percent) and teens make up the smallest percentage of pregnancies (seven percent, including 18 and 19-year-olds), abortions (six percent) and births (10 percent). The vast majority of pregnancies, abortions and births occur well after the teenage years.
So, if people of all ages are having sex and facing the results, why are teen sex and teen pregnancy the problems?
They’re not. Teenage pregnancy isn’t the epidemic. The lack of information and support for people to make healthy decisions about their lives is the true epidemic. The culture of shame and scapegoating around sex is the real problem. And this epidemic crosses generations, with young people feeling the brunt of it.
Teens need access to the information to make informed decisions regarding sex and the resources and support to handle the outcomes of having sex. They need comprehensive sexuality education, access to affordable maternal and child care and contraceptive services, to name a few. They need nurturing environments where they aren’t judged or made to feel shameful about having sex or being young parents. That’s all anyone needs, really, regardless of age.
Teens are asking for this access to information and resources. One of Choice USA’s youth activists from Texas told us, “The pressure of sex and relationships is an extremely important issue young people have to face. These pressures can result in consequential outcomes, which explains why I think that it is ultimately important for youth to receive a comprehensive education to make them aware of all the possible options and choices they have.”
But teens aren’t only feeling pressure from their peers. They are feeling pressure from individuals and organizations that perpetuate the myth of the teen pregnancy epidemic, from media that says teen sex is something to be ashamed of, from campaigns that stem from the idea that teen sex and pregnancy must be ended. Added pressure and stigma that exudes from many teen pregnancy campaigns does little to help the perceived problem of teen sex and pregnancy.
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) has shown that teen pregnancy campaigns that rely on shame and stigma don’t work. In a recent white paper, NLIRH suggests that we should support policies that promote access to information and resources but only as “part of a platform to increase women’s ability to make informed choices that are relevant to their lives, and not to make choices for them.”
When framing teen sex and pregnancy as a problem of epidemic proportions, when telling teens there is one acceptable choice, we undersell young people’s ability to make responsible and healthy decisions about their lives. And at the same time, we are ignoring that people need information and resources about sex throughout their entire lives, not just as teenagers. We need to look at those factors that impact people’s whole lives—access to education, healthcare and employment—and stop using teen sex and pregnancy as scapegoats.
Young people know they need more information and support, and they’re asking for help in order to make healthy and informed decisions about their lives. This is the opposite of an epidemic, it is mature decision making. We need to praise, not devalue, this good judgment. We need to make these resources available to teens and people of all ages, but with no strings and no stigma attached.