Sexing up Alabama

Why bringing "Berkeley values" into the American classroom won't increase teen pregnancies. It will reduce them

Published February 1, 2010 10:02PM (EST)

I had a scary moment this morning. I realized that conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and I sorta kinda almost publicly agreed on something: To wit, that it's premature to blame abstinence-only education for the recent rise in teen pregnancy rates. Of course, when I wrote that, my emphasis was on "premature"; although we can't prove a causal relationship at this point and should therefore be circumspect, I wrote,"I find it entirely believable that crappy sex ed is to blame for the spike in teen pregnancy, and I'll take any opportunity to remind anyone who will listen that abstinence-only education does not work."

Douthat, on the other hand, is all, "Well, yeah, ab-only ed doesn't work, but comprehensive sex ed doesn't either, so let's call the whole thing off." (I paraphrase.) He cites Berkeley sociologist Kristin Luker's "When Sex Goes to School" and a 2001 Guttmacher Institute survey that found "most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use." In fact, says Douthat, family and community values seem to have the greatest impact on teens' sexual behavior, ergo, "This is the real problem with federal financing for abstinence-based education: It drags the national government into a debate that should remain intensely local." 

"If the federal government wants to invest in the fight against teenage pregnancy," he continues, "the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached. (And yes, this goes for the dollars that currently flow to Planned Parenthood as well as the money that supports abstinence programs.) Don’t try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa." That's a nice thought (as Amanda Marcotte snarked on Twitter, "We'll let your kids be perverts, if you let our kids be tortured and shamed"), but there are a few glaring problems with it. 

I'll start with what should be a fairly conservative-friendly argument: The consequences of teens' sexual behavior aren't borne only by their respective communities. According to a report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, teen childbearing cost U.S. taxpayers (combining state, local and federal taxes) about $9.1 billion in 2004. In Mississippi, the state with the highest teen birth rate, the total cost was estimated at $135 million, 49 percent of which was federal money. (In New Hampshire, the state with the lowest teen birthrate, the total cost was $18 million, with 44 percent federal costs.) Teen pregnancy rates are among the "predictors and risk factors associated with welfare dependence," according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and there's substantial overlap between states with high teen birthrates and states that get a lot more out of the federal kitty, including for entitlement programs, than they put in. Mississippi, for instance, gets back $2.02 for every dollar it sends to Washington, while New Hampshire gets back only 71 cents.

So it's swell to say that this should be an "intensely local" issue, but it's just not. I mean, I'm a bleeding heart liberal who looks at the numbers and thinks poverty is the obvious common denominator, and I'd be happy to see even more money go to services that actually help people. But I also think reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies -- among teenagers and adults -- is a worthy goal for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it might free up some tax dollars. Conservatives are supposed to like things that save money, right?

Next, let's go back to that Guttmacher report Douthat mentions. While its overall message is indeed that social norms have a greater impact on behavior than any sex ed programs, we need to talk about which social norms are having what kind of impact. "If a group has clear norms for (or against) sex or contraceptive use, then adolescents associated with this group will be more (or less) likely to have sex and use contraceptives," writes author Douglas Kirby. "Innumerable studies demonstrated that the norms of individuals to whom teenagers are attached (e.g., family members, close friends and romantic partners) were strongly related to and consistent with the adolescents' own sexual and contraceptive behavior." Sexual and contraceptive behavior. Kids might be somewhat less likely to have sex if everyone around them is constantly talking about how sinful and dangerous it is, but that doesn't mean none of them will -- and if their parents, preachers and pals are also telling them that contraceptives are sinful, dangerous and/or ineffective, that's going to sink in, too. I haven't read Luker's book, but in her New York Times review of it, Judith Shulevitz wrote, "[I]f the notoriously inconclusive data on sex education show anything, it’s that teaching abstinence makes it more likely that young people will have unsafe sex once they start having it." Lo and behold, even with those strong anti-sex community values, teen birthrates are highest in the most religious states. (Mississippi's No. 1 for both; New Hampshire is the 48th most religious state.) Religious prohibitions against contraception aren't the only factor there, but they're one plausible explanation.

Also, back when teen pregnancy rates were still declining, the Guttmacher Institute found that although trends in contraceptive use were mixed, only about a quarter of the drop could be attributed to increased abstinence; the other 75 percent was the result of sexually experienced teens managing not to get pregnant. Furthermore, that report noted that "The greatest change is an increase in the proportion of sexually experienced teenagers who report having used a method at first sex." While that obviously doesn't tell us about long-term contraceptive use, a 2004 CDC report stated, "Teenagers who do not use a method of birth control at first intercourse are about twice as likely to become teen mothers as teens who do use a method at first intercourse." Twice as likely! So educating kids about contraception before they start having sex probably does matter, as it turns out! Oh, and about when they start having it? According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 55 percent of Mississippi teens have had sex by ninth grade -- versus 27 percent of New Hampshire high school freshmen. Just FYI.

So, one really big problem with not encouraging Berkeley values in Alabama is that kids who grow up with Alabama values have babies at much higher rates. (Alabama has the No. 12 teen birthrate; California's No. 28.) Even if communities and families have more of an effect on teens' behavior than schools do, it is abundantly clear that kids growing up in environments where they learn something about sex and contraception beyond "Don't do it, and then you won't need it" are less likely to get pregnant. So, not for the first -- or 50th -- time, I have to ask: Do the folks who insist on keeping their children ignorant actually want to prevent teen pregnancies?

While it should go without saying that not every teen pregnancy is a sad story in the long run -- our president seems to have turned out all right, and Salon contributor Amy Benfer has written numerous times about the daughter she had at 16, whose awesomeness I can vouch for -- there's no question that it's in society's best interest (not to mention most teenagers') to reduce the number of them. There is no question that abstinence-only education doesn't help with that. And there is no question that in a nation where church and state are meant to be separate, public schools should favor curricula that offer comprehensive, scientifically accurate information over those that offer limited and sometimes false information based on a narrow, usually religious worldview. Deciding whether to tell schoolchildren the truth is not something that should be up to the discretion of local communities. As Bitch Ph.D.'s M. Leblanc put it, "As it turns out, kids have a right to a meaningful education ... What non-abstinence only education does is not lie to kids." So the thing is, determining the best way to educate children about sexuality and reproduction is not merely a matter of Alabama values vs. Berkeley values. It's a matter of good old-fashioned American values -- like preserving freedom of religion, helping all of our children get the best possible start in life, and above all, believing the truth is better than a lie.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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