The CDC’s study showing an uptick in teen contraceptive use has been widely celebrated as a “win” for teens and society. Many are connecting the increase in contraceptive use to the steady decline in teen pregnancy (although that is complex and debatable—more thoughts on that in another post). Yet two significant pieces of research have also come to light in the past few months that should make us question whether merely handing out birth control is the kind of “sexual education” that benefits teens in the long run.
- Teens want to know about love, not just sex
It’s been documented that both men and women don’t actually like “hookup culture”; most rather hope for a committed relationship instead of casual sex. When we provide the resources for early, “safe” sex, therefore, while ignoring the need for love and commitment, we end up contributing to a culture that has romantically immiserated both young men and women. A Harvard survey of young adults aged 18-25 shows that they want loving relationships as opposed to uncommitted sex, but are hungry for guidance on how to get there.
By placing the emphasis solely on birth control during their school years, we train young men and women in methods to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Yet we can offer them nothing about avoiding the heartache or loneliness that can happen after you have given your body to someone, only to have them reject your heart. A health class might discuss the importance of seeking consent for a sexual encounter, yet never address how to speak to a partner with respect and consideration of their feelings.
Teens actually want this information. The Harvard study revealed that 65% of young adults wished they had received guidance “on some emotional aspect of romantic relationships” from a health or sex-ed class at school.
In addition to helping them in the short term, giving teens and young adults a fuller perspective about the weight of sexual and romantic decisions will impact them in the long term. After all, for most young people, sex will eventually lead to kids.
- We owe teens the full story about contraception
Young women deserve to know about the high failure rates of contraceptives (NIH says the Pill’s ineffectiveness rates are between 9-30%). Further, over half of all women seeking abortion were using some form of contraception during the month they became pregnant.
And let’s be real—not only is birth control frequently ineffective in protecting against unplanned pregnancy—it can also affect the health of teen girls. Hormonal contraception in particular places them at higher risk of cardiovascular events, including blood clots, and cancer rates including cervical cancer and breast cancer, as well as higher HPV rates. Recent research has shown that “use of hormonal contraception, especially among adolescents, was associated with subsequent use of antidepressants and a first diagnosis of depression.” What’s more, it is possible that adolescent girls also face greater risks from contraceptive drugs and devices than we even know of, as the effect of contraceptive use on developing adolescent physiology has barely been studied.
Young women should also be told about the impact that birth control, uncommitted sex and childbearing can have on their health, as well as their future romantic lives and their economic futures.
It is also not too soon to let them know how their sexual decisions can impact the well-being of future spouses and children. This includes explaining to them how it benefits them to wait for committed love, and pursue financial and relational stability through marriage.
- Want to avoid poverty? Have sex and kids after marriage
Wendy Wang at AEI and Brad Wilcox at the Institute for Family Studies have released a report titled “The Millennial Success Sequence: Marriage, Kids, and the “success sequence” among young adults.” They found that 95% of millennials who got married before they had kids do not live in poverty, while 72% of millennials who had children before marriage do live in poverty.
Saving sex for your spouse may be less common than it used to be, but the benefits are significant. Not only will teens be 100% insured against STDs or nonmarital pregnancy, but the most recent federal survey on marriage and family (the Center for Disease Control’s National Survey of Family Growth), showed that for women married since 2000, while only 5% were virgins at marriage, another 22% had slept with just one man in their lifetime, their future husband. The 5% who married as virgins had the lowest rates of divorce, followed by the 22% who had only slept with their future husband.
Merely offering teen girls contraception, without the context of making sexual choices that help them long-term, does them a great disservice. We should be preparing girls for the best sexual, relational, marital, and childbearing experiences—not just handing them cheap insurance against the worst.