Another Look at Abstinence and Declines in Teen Sexual Activity

I suppose the reactions are predictable: the data are clear that pregnancy rates, birthrates, abortion rates, and sexual activity among teens have all declined. Now, liberal researchers are torturing the data to make it confess to their desired conclusions as to what is producing these dramatic and desired outcomes. Interestingly, The Guttmacher Institute highlights the increased age of marriage but downplays the downturn of age at first sex. Also, Guttmacher headlines in their recent “Update” that “contraception drives” the declines. But facts are facts: among sexually active teens (those who reported having had sexual intercourse in the last 3 months), 18.2 percent of teens did not use contraception in 1991 compared to 15.7 percent who did not use any form of contraception in 2013. Guttmacher’s researchers want us to believe that this slight 2.6 percentage point decline in “unprotected’ sex is responsible for a 79 percent reduction in the under-15 birthrate, a 62 percent decline in the 15-17 birthrate, and a 39 percent decline in the 18-19 birthrate.  

The Heritage Foundation’s just-released 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity provides a compendium of analyses and charts of “The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America.” Their report includes a chart labeled “Abstinence among High Schoolers,” but for some reason they provide no accompanying analysis. The only observation accompanying the chart is the statement that “from 2001 to 2011 the percentage of 12th grade students who had ever had sex increased by 2.6 percent. Unmentioned is the fact that the standard errors of the 2001 and 2011 estimates are so large (due to the obviously large random variations in these data) that the 2.6 percentage change is not statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level. Plus there is no mention of the overall decline and the dramatic declines in some populations and age groups.

Look at the long-run trends in the percentage of high school students who had ever had sex broken down by race and ethnicity shown in Figure 1. These encouraging trends beg for a cogent, believable explanation of their causes, particularly the dramatic decline in the sexual activity by non-Hispanic blacks. (Note, the slope coefficients for the trend lines for the data series in Figures 1, 2 and 3 below are all statistically significant.)

If we look at the indicator for early onset of sexual activity (the percent of high school students who have ever had sexual intercourse before age thirteen), the downward long-run trend is likewise heartening (see Figure 2), especially among males. This measure is of particular significance since early initiators have an increased likelihood of having multiple sex partners which increases the risk of becoming pregnant and/or contracting an STD.

In addition to the data in Figures 1 and 2 (which is based on self-reporting survey responses), there is also “hard” birth data from the National Center for Health statistics which shows the dramatic consequences of the changes in adolescences’ sexual behavior. In Figure 3 we see how the birthrates for females under 15 years of age during the period from 1970 to 1990 -- when comprehensive sex education was the strongest voice influencing values and behavior -- compare to those during the period from 1990 to 2012 when the abstinence movement became an effective counter influence. The white under-15 birthrate increased by 64 percent from 1970 to 1990 but has since decreased by two-thirds. The black under-15 rate see-sawed in the 1970-1990 period but has since decreased by 85 percent.

It appears patently obvious that the reductions in early childbearing has been primarily (if not exclusively) the consequence of the reduction in the percentage of youths having sexual intercourse before age 13. While the data are not available to empirically confirm this assertion, it defies common sense to expect that preteen and early teen adolescents might be making effective use of contraception regardless of the degree to which birth control technology has advanced.

Of particular note is the fact that the changes in values and concomitant behavioral changes of young adolescents revealed by these trends are not peculiar to one socio-demographic group’s culture. This testifies to the widespread appeal and effectiveness of the abstinence message as an influence on different cultures. One could hardly have hoped 25 years ago that the abstinence movement would be able to mount an effective campaign to change the culture in the face of the relentless messaging of comprehensive sex educators telling children that they cannot control their hormones and hence their only recourse was the use of condoms to prevent becoming pregnant or contracting an STD; if the condom broke, they were assured there was the failsafe option of abortion. On top of this has been the avalanche of explicit depictions of sexual activity in the entertainment media. Figure 4 makes it obvious that the reductions in the birthrate have not been the product of greater resort to abortion.

It’s a David versus Goliath battle but despite the billions spent inundating our youth with encouragement to experiment sexually, it is clear that they are rejecting the message to “just do it . . . but with a condom.”

Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D., former Presidential Speechwriter for Bush 41, is a cultural commentator, columnist and author of two books that examine the cultural impact of the decline in family formation and the breakdown of the family: Children at Risk (2010) and Marriage Matters (2012), both published by Transaction Publishers, the publisher of record for international social science research.

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