What happens when your country isn't weird about sex?

European teens are far from abstinent, but their rates of pregnancy and STDs are much lower than ours. Hmm.

Published May 17, 2006 1:30PM (EDT)

Again with the Europe envy. Deeper movies, smaller cars, better food in bus stations -- and lower rates than ours of pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases among teens. In fact, our rates of all of the above are among the highest of all industrialized nations, even though teen sex rates here and abroad are comparable.

What's in the water over there? The Washington Post explored this issue yesterday as part of a series on teen sex, pregnancy and contraception. Here is what the Guttmacher Institute had to say, based on data from a 2001 report: "Societal acceptance of sexual activity among young people, combined with comprehensive and balanced information about sexuality and clear expectations about commitment and prevention of childbearing and STDs within teenage relationships, are hallmarks of countries with low levels of adolescent pregnancy, childbearing and STDs."

Let's take Sweden. (I know, it's always Sweden.) The Post reports, "In Sweden, compulsory sex education starts when children are 10 to 12. Without parental consent, teens can get free medical care, free condoms, prescriptions for inexpensive oral contraceptives and general advice at youth clinics. Emergency contraceptives are available without a prescription."

Switzerland? "All in all, the [Roman Catholic] church has been very tolerant and does not really get involved in sexual matters," including the country's AIDS prevention campaign, said Pierre-Andre Michaud, chief of the Multidisciplinary Unit for Adolescent Health at the University of Lausanne Hospital in Switzerland and a leading researcher in European teen sexuality.

But don't they have lots of naked people in ads over there? What's the effect of sexually explicit media? "Straightforward messages on how to prevent STDs and teen pregnancy help offset [their] impact," said the Post.

Michaud criticized the "be abstinent ... but if you're not, here's a condom" mixed message (my paraphrase) that teens get here (if they're lucky). One of his colleagues put it another way: "The main difference is that in the States sexual activity is considered a risk. Here we consider it a pleasure." Vive la Suisse!

To be fair, though, the message offered by educators of comprehensive sex ed in the U.S. can, in skilled hands, be more nuanced than Michaud suggests -- and I'd say teens are smart enough to get it. Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins says the real mixed message is this: "We have a very hyper-sexualized media and, concurrent with that, a total aversion to giving clear and consistent messages about how you reduce risk." Right. And even if American parents might not send their teen off to Valborgsmässoafton with a condom and a wink, there's still plenty of middle ground here in which grown-ups can make their point. Bottom line, there's a big difference between being cautious about sex and being weird about it. (I mean, I just saw "Carrie" again the other night, and her mother struck me less as quaint psycho harridan, more as prescient metaphor.) There's a difference between keeping kids informed and freaking them out, between encouraging abstinence and fetishizing virginity. But as long as our powers that be refuse to see that, there'll be a big, sad difference between us and western Europe.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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