Safe Sex

Teen Pregnancies Are Falling, But No Thanks To Abstinence-Only Sex Education

February 29, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller

According to a new report from the CDC, the number of teenagers giving birth is at its lowest point in the last 15 years. In fact, between 1991 and 2014, there was a whopping 61 percent drop in births among U.S. women aged 15-19!

This decline occurred among women of all racial backgrounds, although it was even more pronounced for racial minorities than it was for White women.

In light of this trend, many people are wondering why—who or what should be credited with decreasing the teen pregnancy and birth rates so much?

Some might argue that this is evidence for the effectiveness of increased abstinence-only sex education.

Over the last two decades, funding for abstinence-only programs grew dramatically (as in we’ve spent billions on this), particularly during the Bush administration. Given that this coincided with a massive reduction in teen births, it’s easy to see how some folks might conclude that abstinence education is a resounding success.

There’s just one problem with this logic: it’s completely wrong.

In fact, when you look at actual studies comparing the outcomes of teens who received abstinence-only education to those who received comprehensive sex education (in which they learned something other than, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant…AND DIE!”), we see that the abstinence-only approach just doesn’t work.

Among the most damning evidence against abstinence-only sex education programs is research showing that in the states where the most abstinence programs exist, the teen pregnancy rate is the highest. If such programs really worked, that’s probably not the pattern we’d expect to see.

It turns out that kids are actually more likely to practice safe-sex when they’ve been thoroughly educated about it. The teen pregnancy rate has therefore dropped in spite of America’s widespread usage of ineffective sex education.

The truth is that the declines we’re seeing probably have a lot more to do with changes in sexual behavior and access to effective contraceptives. Here’s why.

First, in order for teenage women to get pregnant, they need to be having sex—but it turns out that teens are actually having less sex today than they did in the past. This is not to say that abstinence is the new norm—far from it. Most teens are still sexually active. They’re just not quite as active as they used to be.

That’s right—despite everything you’ve heard about the explosion of “hookup culture,” the reality is that millennials are the least sexually-active generation in decades. They’re not only having sex less often, but with fewer partners as well.

We can’t say why for sure. However, this is likely due, at least in part, to the internet, which has opened up new outlets for sexual expression. In other words, virtual sexual interactions are replacing some of teens’ physical interactions.

But no matter the reason, given that sex in general is on the decline among adolescents and young adults, it only makes sense that teen pregnancies would be decreasing as well.

Second, coupled with less sex is increased access to and usage of effective contraception. For example, usage of long-lasting, reversible contraceptives like IUDs and hormonal implants are on the rise. In fact, between 2002-2013 alone, there was an eight-fold increase in use of these contraceptive methods among women in the 15-24 year-old age group.

Both IUDs and implants are more than 99 percent effective, which stands in sharp contrast to the 82 percent typical-use effectiveness rate of condoms.

Another major change is easier access to emergency contraception (i.e., the morning-after pill), which is now available for purchase over the counter by women aged 15 and older. In the not-too-distant past, accessing emergency contraception was much more difficult because it required a prescription.

Perhaps not surprisingly, use of emergency contraception has risen significantly in the last few years.

In short, while it might be tempting to argue that the decline in teen pregnancy is a function of the rise of abstinence education, the evidence just isn’t there to support it. The reason fewer teen women are giving birth likely has a lot more to do with the fact that teens today aren’t having as much sex as they used to and that they have greater access to pregnancy prevention tools that are both more effective and less error-prone than condoms.

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Image Source: 123RF/James Kingman

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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