More teen sex, fewer babies and really scary numbers

June 08, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

There's a new report out on teen-age sex. And, for a change, the news is encouraging. Although, not everyone will necessarily see it that way.

According to this study, teens are doing a much better job of not getting pregnant. That's clearly good news.

But it isn't that they're abstaining from sex. In fact -- and this may be hard to believe, especially if you think back to your own teen-age years -- more teens are having sex than ever.

Try these numbers: By age 18, more than 50 percent of women and 75 percent of men have engaged in sexual intercourse.

For many adults, those statistics are fairly disturbing. I think most of us would prefer to think that our high school kids were more into the joys of algebra than the joys of sex.

But there are other numbers: 70 percent of sexually active teens are regularly using contraceptives.

Meaning pregnancy rates are down for teen-age girls who are having sex. Meaning abortion rates are down as well.

Not only that. By the time sexually active women reach their early 20s, nine of 10 are using contraceptives.

If you trust the numbers -- researched by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a respected organization that studies sexuality and contraception -- it seems the pragmatic approach of teaching kids how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease may be working.

And isn't that the point?

Is the bigger problem simply teen-age sex or is it unsafe teen-age sex, leading to pregnancy and disease? Children having children is clearly one of the great social ills of our time.

For instance, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders believes that distributing condoms to kids who are having sex is a more productive approach than telling kids who are having sex to stop having sex. It's the approach that says that teen abstinence, while a nice ideal, is often pretty far removed from reality.

The reality is that many kids are having sex. The question is:

What do you do about it?

The debate continues.

It will soon open in Congress, which will consider as part of the new Clinton budget a proposal to eliminate the Reagan-era Family Life Act, which promotes abstinence and adoption.

In attacking welfare dependency, the Clinton administration also must attack teen-age pregnancy. It wants to take the money from the Family Life Act and use it in programs that go well beyond teaching abstinence to teaching young people how not to have babies.

Meanwhile, they're having a little battle on the same subject in Northern California.

In this case, an anti-abortion group wants to use taxpayer money to teach a five-day course in abstinence in local middle and high schools. The group wants to promote the concept of waiting for marriage before having sex.

Planned Parenthood is trying to block the program, saying that the focus is too narrow and that sex education must cover a wide range of possibilities, particularly in the area of promoting safe sex.

Abstinence isn't necessarily the question here. It's hard to find any responsible adult who doesn't believe abstinence, particularly for young teen-agers, is a good idea.

Planned Parenthood says it, too, favors abstinence for teen-agers. But there's an important difference in Planned Parenthood's philosophy, which urges students to wait to have sex -- until they are physically and emotionally mature. Whatever that means.

What it doesn't mean is that you have to wait until marriage.

How many people in America, teen-age or otherwise, delay sex until marriage?

In the 1990s, the notion is almost quaint. It certainly can't be the focus of any program dealing with teen pregnancy.

What you can do is warn teen-agers of the dangers, emotional and otherwise, of young sex and of unprotected sex.

What you can teach them is how to make decisions about themselves and how to respect and protect their own bodies.

Here are some really scary numbers. Of girls who had sex before age 14, as many as 75 percent said they had at some point been coerced into sexual intercourse. Of births by 15-year-olds, approximately one-third of the fathers were at least six years older than the mother.

Obviously, there's much work to do. But, just maybe, we're a little closer to figuring out how to get it done.

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