Abstaining from Sex

When Congress passed the welfare reform law in 1996, it not only wanted to encourage work but also to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing. Although the results of the legislation have been most dramatic in the case of the work-related goals, considerable progress has also been made in meeting the family formation purposes of the law. The proportion of all children born out of wedlock has leveled off after having increased steadily for many years, in large measure because both teen pregnancy and teen birth rates have declined by about 20 percent since the early 1990s. These declines show that progress on what was once seen as an intractable social problem is possible.

Despite this progress in curbing teen pregnancy, it should be noted that the United States still has very high rates compared with other industrialized countries. Four out of 10 girls become pregnant before their twentieth birthdays and two out of 10 go on to become single mothers. These high rates of teen pregnancy contribute to high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing, increased numbers of single-parent families, welfare dependency, and child poverty. Half of all out-of-wedlock childbearing begins in the teenage years, and half of all welfare recipients had their first baby as a teen. Consequently, as Dan Lichter has shown, reducing early childbearing may be one of the most effective ways to improve the marriage prospects of low-income women and ensure that more children grow up in stable families.

For all of these reasons, it is important to maintain the momentum generated by the 1996 law. The data show that teens are less sexually active and better users of contraceptives than they were a decade ago.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that preventing teen pregnancy is only a matter of teaching kids about reproductive biology and handing out condoms in schools or clinics. Today’s teens are well-informed about the birds and the bees, and condoms are widely available in drug stores and supermarkets. What is needed in addition to sex education and family planning services is a change in the culture to make abstaining from sex as well as using birth control seem more attractive, even “cool.”

But how do we create these new attitudes? Partly by building on the growing realization among teens that sex has more serious consequences than ever before. Chief among these consequences are sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection. But the messages about consequences being delivered by the 1996 welfare law are also important. To young women, the law says that if they have babies out of wedlock, they will be required to work and will receive time-limited assistance from the welfare system. To young men, it says that if they father a child, they will be expected to contribute to its support. Research is now beginning to suggest that these messages matter. An Urban Institute study, for example, shows a bigger decline in single parenting among subgroups most likely to have been affected by reform than among those least likely to have been affected.

TV plays a role. Welfare reform’s messages have been the sticks that motivate young people to abstain from sex or to use birth control. But there have been positive messages as well, messages that suggest that sex with the right person and in the right circumstances is worth waiting for. These more positive messages are coming from parents, from faith communities, and increasingly—if belatedly and infrequently—from media campaigns and programs that teens watch.

Some of the abstinence education money that was included in the 1996 bill has been used by states to fund media campaigns. National nonprofit organizations have played a role as well by working in tandem with the media to influence entertainment programming. When a teen’s favorite character on TV, in an emotionally charged and dramatic situation, decides not to have sex or discusses the issue with a parent or a friend, more “education” can take place than in any school classroom. For example, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is working in partnership with the WB Network. In one of their shows, “7th Heaven” (with 3.3 million viewers), a teenager pressured by her boyfriend to have sex not only refuses but ends the relationship. The message that comes through is that honest communication and mutual respect are important in relationships. Through efforts such as these, we have an opportunity to change social norms and practices. Although the data show that today’s teens have more conservative attitudes about casual sex than did their older brothers and sisters and are beginning to behave accordingly, a much broader effort is needed.

None of this is meant to imply that sex education, after-school programs, and family planning services should be neglected. It is only to argue that they need to be supplemented by direct efforts to change the culture. The evidence suggests that such efforts work and that more resources should be devoted to this end. A review of 48 different health-related media campaigns, from smoking cessation to AIDS prevention, found that on average such campaigns led 7 percent to 10 percent of the target audience to change their behavior (relative to a control group). Compared to sex education or after-school programs, such efforts can reach large numbers of teens very cheaply, and with these kinds of benefits, they ought to be expanded. The social norms that made early sex and pregnancy unacceptable in the 1950s may never return, but the more permissive norms of the 1970s and 1980s are now being rejected amid the realization that the excesses of that era carried enormous human and social costs.

Emphasize work. How can we strengthen this new norm of responsibility and build on recent successes in reducing teen pregnancies?

First, Congress should maintain the emphasis on work, on child support enforcement, and on an abstinence message when it rewrites the 1996 welfare law in 2002.

Second, it should provide adequate resources and flexibility to the states so that they can expand their efforts to prevent teen pregnancy. A strong abstinence message is totally consistent with public values, but the idea that the federal government can, or should, rigidly prescribe what goes on in the classroom through detailed curricular guidelines makes little sense. Family and community values, not a federal mandate, should prevail.

Third, a federally funded national resource center that focused on what worked and disseminated the results to states and communities would help to ensure that their efforts were better supported and more effective.

Fourth, the federal government should fund a national media campaign. Although there are now a number of community programs that have proved effective, the burden of reducing teen pregnancy should not rest on programs alone. Funds should be provided to support not only well-designed public service ads but also various non-governmental efforts to work in partnership with the entertainment industry to promote more responsible media content. The messages embedded in ad campaigns will vary, but South Carolina’s “First Things First” campaign is an interesting model. Their message is simply “get an education, get a job, get married, then have a child.”

The bottom line is that messages matter. Working through nonprofit and faith-based organizations, government can shape the culture. That may be the key to continued progress in reducing teen pregnancy, out-of-wedlock childbearing, welfare dependency, and child poverty.

Blueprint Magazine, Volume 14, Jan/Feb 2002
Democratic Leadership Council