This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
The third presidential debate of 2016 marked new lows in mudslinging that passed as high-minded public discourse, but on one topic that has been bitterly divisive for decades, Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton spoke clearly and coherently: abortion and female sexual health. (Clinton was unequivocally in favor of a woman’s right to safe, legal and accessible abortion and the defense of Roe v. Wade; Trump took a qualified anti-choice stance, opposing abortion except in cases of rape and the woman's endangerment.)
For more than 40 years, the United States has been engaged in a hard-fought culture war that may be coming to an end, at least for now. One of the fronts in the battle is sex, deciding how the government is involved in Americans’ sex lives, women’s reproductive health and rights to abortion. Teen sex is one of these critical culture war issues. And, surprising to many, recent federal data reveals a sustained decline in teen pregnancy.
As the Department of Health and Human Services notes, “In 2014, there were 24.2 births for every 1,000 adolescent females ages 15-19, or 249,078 babies born to females in this age group.” Nearly nine out of 10 (89 percent) of the births occurred among unmarried girls. HHS reports that a quarter century ago, in 1991, the “U.S. teen birth rate was 61.8 births for every 1,000 adolescent females.” That’s a 61-percent decline in teen births when the culture war was at its height.
During this same period, Americans’ sexual practices also significantly changed. What was once considered “immoral” or a “perversion” became normalized. Today, sex fulfills goals of both procreation and pleasure. One key indicator in this transition is the shift in (reported) incidents of premarital sex engaged in by teen girls and women. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), between 1954 and 1963, four-fifths (82 percent) of girls turning 15 had engaged in premarital sex by age 30.
Between 1964 and 1993, among the same cohort of females, “at least 91 percent had had premarital sex by age 30.” In a followup survey conducted in 2002, NIH found that the number of females under age 20 who engaged in premarital sex fell to 75 percent. The Guttmacher Institute reports that between 2011 and 2013, “among unmarried 15- to 19-year-olds, 44 percent of females and 49 percent of males had had sexual intercourse.”
What caused this remarkable development?
America has witnessed repeated culture wars since the nation was first settled. The current bout was launched four decades ago by Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist and lawyer. She and other Christian conservatives were infuriated by 1960s political and cultural radicalism, and their rage crystallized against the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1972, she spearheaded the “Stop ERA” campaign that defeated a women-driven struggle to secure constitutionally guaranteed equality for women begun in 1848.
Schlafly was further incensed in 1973 when an all-male Supreme Court issued its landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, that permitted “Jane Roe” to have an abortion. The Roman Catholic Church and many fundamentalist Protestants shared Schlafly’s outrage. The efforts of the Christian right to end a woman’s right to an abortion helped elect four presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The Christian right failed in this effort to overturn Roe.
George W. Bush’s two terms as president can be considered the high point of the Christian right’s influence on public policy. A peculiar sexual perversion marked his presidency. It began inauspiciously when Attorney General John Ashcroft draped two semi-nude statues, “Spirit of Justice” (female) and “Majesty of Law” (male), in the Justice Department auditorium. Most troubling, as conservatives gained control over the federal bureaucracy, they targeted teen sex education. They withdrew the existing comprehensive program that included proper use of contraceptives and replaced it with a new one promoting “abstinence until marriage” and “virginity pledges.”
Estimates of the amount of federal funding on abstinence teen sex education vary. The ACLU reported the federal government spent more than $700 million between 1997 and 2005 on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs like the "Silver Ring Thing." The Guttmacher Institute reports that the abstinence-only program, at a cost of $176 million, had “no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior.”
This was a period in which two very different cultural messages were being disseminated about teen girls and sex. One involved the ceaseless erotization of ever-younger girls through TV shows, movies, popular advertising and music as well as fashion and cosmetics. The other was the Christian right’s ads and posters depicting young, unhappy, pregnant teens featuring the tagline, “babies having babies.”
This situation was further compounded by two facts: First, between 60 and 80 percent of the half million adolescent girls giving birth each year lived in poverty and came from poor families; second, nearly 90 percent were unmarried.
Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2011 more than one-quarter (26 percent) of young women between 14 and 19 years of age were infected with at least one of the four most common sexually transmitted diseases. It estimated that 3.2 million teenage girls were infected with one or more of human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, herpes simplex virus and/or trichomoniasis.
The traditional teen sex education policy based on abstinence, lack of birth control information and failure to provide appropriate contraceptive products/services was a failure.
America’s demographic makeup significantly changed over the last half-century or so. In 1950, women got married younger; the average age for marriage was 20.3 years, down by one full year from 1930. By 1990, the average marrying age for women was 23 years, but by 2013 it had risen to 27 years.
And the fertility rate jumped. The number of first births in the 1930s was about 2.5 million per year, but by the ‘50s it doubled to over 5 million annually. In the 1930s, an American woman had, on average, 2.2 children during her lifetime; the birth rate peaked in 1957 at 3.7 children, the highest in U.S. history. In 2013, the birth rate declined to 62.5 births per 1,000 women. In 1957, the teen birth rate reached 96.3 per 1,000, reflecting the post-WWII baby boom, and most teen mothers were married with only about 15 percent of birth mothers aged 15-19 unmarried.
As a result of the culture war, teenagers, especially girls, have become sexual subjects exploited by the popular media, turned into objects of desire. However, amid this commercialized push of sexual objectification, many girls are getting smarter and more discriminating about their sexuality. Modern sex education, whether presented in schools, in the mass media or by word-of-mouth, including in parent-child and friend-to-friend exchanges, is helping girls become smarter and more self-possessed about their sexuality.
The series "16 and Pregnant" is among the most popular and informative media expressions of a new form of teen sex education. The series was launched in June 2009 and consists of 68 episodes and eight specials. It led to the spin-off series, "Teen Mom," that ran for four seasons (2009-2012). Each episode follows a teenager, who serves as the program’s subject and narrator, during the term of her pregnancy. The girls profiled receive a $60,000 payment for participation.
The show uses cartoon animations and other computer-graphic techniques to creatively engage with the teen target audience. Drew Pinsky, a Hollywood celebrity doctor, has hosted some of the programs. Numerous research studies document how the series has helped girls with both birth control, and if they get pregnant, coping with expectant motherhood. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research claims the series “led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period.”
Guttmacher reports two critical facts regarding contraceptive use among females. First, nearly all females aged 15-44 years who ever had sexual intercourse used at least one contraceptive method; and, second, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of all women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method.
Since the culture war started four decades ago, teen pregnancy has steadily declined and may well continue to fall. Girls and young women seem to be getting both sexually smarter and more self-empowered, able to establish the boundaries of consent and what is sexually acceptable. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign may, if only symbolically, embolden more girls and women to demand greater social equality.
Sadly, much of what Donald Trump called “locker room” morality, of “boys-will-be-boys” misogyny, still dominates popular culture and the justice system. But rape is increasingly becoming a social issue, something no longer tolerated. Among college administrative bureaucratic decision makers (especially cases involving athletes), rape is being increasingly acknowledged as a violation of the dictum “No means no.”
The teen pregnancy rate will, hopefully, continue to decline as personal and social empowerment strengthens teen girls' sense of self. Smart sex education programs and improved birth control methods can strengthen a young woman’s ability to determine her own sexual life. This is one important potential outcome of the end of the culture war.