Teenage Birth Rate Drops to a 65-Year Low
May 8, 2007
Lubbock, Texas, the setting in the documentary "The Education of Shelby Knox," has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Hang around on a Friday night, and you'll hear about sex, lots of it, and maybe even Fuck Fest, a rating game where boys score girls. An influential town pastor, self-described as an intolerant Christian, who says that "sex is what two dogs do on a street corner," is fighting the problem with abstinence advocacy. So is Shelby Knox, a self-described liberal Christian who took an abstinence pledge--but also set out to take down the school board's abstinence-only sex education policy.
One teen I spoke with said that when people hear "teen" and "sex" they think about two things: pregnancy and STDs. Shelby, and others like her with their complex sexuality and sophisticated sexual politics, defy that perception. And now that the teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low, the understanding of what teens are doing in the bedroom (or not doing) might begin to change. I spoke with teen abstinence advocates and teen editors at Sex Etc., a national magazine and website on sexual health written by teens and published by Answer, a national comprehensive sexuality education organization, about why they think teen pregnancy is on the decline.
Virgin and proud
In Chicago's south side in front of an auditorium of her peers--many who are sexually active, some who are already parents--Taylor Moore says something that could be totally alienating.
"I'm not worried about STDs or pregnancy. I'm a 17-year-old virgin."
But there is something about Taylor and her abstinence message that seems to inspire girls, even girls who are nothing like her. Taylor thinks that something is about hope and possibility and success--three things that many of her peers may know little about.
"When you open yourself up to STDs or teen pregnancy, you limit the possibilities in your life as far as success," says Taylor who will be attending college this fall to study instrumental music performance, with an emphasis in percussion.
Motherhood, Taylor says, is the first thing that many of her schoolmates have to feel proud of. "To carry a baby on your hip is seen as a status symbol, especially in the African-American community," says Moore, who is African-American. "I think for (the moms) it is a sense of accomplishment."
Taylor grew up in a single-mom household. Her mom told her that even though she had sex outside of marriage, Taylor should wait--for a husband who has been ordained by God. Taylor was introduced to abstinence values at a very young age, and she's been traveling the country in support of abstinence since she was 13 and met Libby Gray Macke, executive director of Project Reality, whom she now calls her God-Aunt. She's even recorded a single, "I'm Worth Waiting For."
Abstinence may or may not be for everyone, but virginity is no longer taboo. Seventy-five percent of teens do not think it is embarrassing to admit that they are virgins, according to "With One Voice 2007," (PDF) a survey released in February by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
"I don't need to get caught up with a boyfriend," says Taylor. "I need to stay focused on positive things like academics and spreading this message. When I find a husband, it will be a beautiful thing."
A recent report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (PDF) shows that youth enrolled in the four abstinence-only programs studied were no more likely than those not in the programs to delay sexual initiation, have fewer partners, or abstain from sex entirely. This report validates what comprehensive sex advocates have been saying all along: Abstinence programs do not prevent teen pregnancy. But still, there are teens for whom abstinence is the only option.
"I do think that abstinence is a viable, realistic goal," 18-year-old Gaurav Dubey wrote in an email. "It's not that people aren't able to be abstinent, it's that people simply do not care for a meaningful relationship when they can have sex instead."
For Gaurav, abstinence is a no-brainer. All the reasons why teens might have sex--pleasure, curiosity, peer pressure, to prove their love--are not worth it to Gaurav. Values in his household were not typically American, he says. His parents, who emigrated from India, had an arranged marriage and never had premarital partners. Gaurav will attend college in Florida next fall as a premed student. Then he plans to engage in relationships--but not sex.