Teens deserve to hear from us that sex outside of marriage is wrong, that it is harmful, and that we have enough faith in them to believe they can make healthy decisions.
It's a myth, you know, the inevitability of teen sex, that is. Though we warn teens against having sex and lament the statistics, we tend to accept teen sex as inevitable. It's not. And it's time to attack that myth because sex is bad for unmarried teens, period. Indeed, when it comes to unmarried teenagers, there's no such thing as okay sex.
Of course, we know about non-marital pregnancies. Every one of us would agree that an unmarried teenager should never become pregnant. If a girl gets pregnant at age 17 or younger and keeps the baby, she is very likely to live in poverty. In 1996 Maynard and her colleagues reported that during their first 13 years of parenthood, adolescent mothers on average earn less than half the poverty level. And only 3 of 10 adolescent moms earn a high school diploma before the age of 30 (Maynard).
The fathers of babies born to moms age 17 or younger don't fare much better. Over the 18 years following the birth of their first children, these young men earn approximately $3,000 less per year when compared with the fathers of babies born to women who wait beyond their teen years to give birth (Maynard).
Yes, the dangerous consequences of non-marital teen pregnancies are well documented and well known. But too often, many adults incorrectly believe that "condoms and other contraceptives" is the best answer to the question, "How can we help our kids avoid pregnancy?" The ration- ale is that if we keep young people safe from pregnancy, the inevitable teen sex is, well, okay. Unfortunately, we seem to forget about the other, perhaps just as dangerous, consequences of teenagers having sex.
First of all, we know that the younger a person is when he or she starts having sex, the more sexual partners he or she will have over a lifetime. Indeed, 58% of women who have intercourse at an age younger than 16 will have more than 5 lifetime partners, compared to just 15% for women who wait until age 20 or beyond (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital and Health Statistics). The probability of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) increases dramatically with an increase in sexual partners.
Between 3 and 4 million STDs occur in teens each year (American Social Health Association). This epidemic is creating lifelong costs. Approximately 27% of the women who require in vitro fertilization do so because of scarring in their pelvic structures due to pelvic inflammatory disease from a chlamydia infection (American Society of Reproductive Medicine). Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes more than 90% of cancer and pre-cancer of the cervix (National Institutes of Health), which, in turn, causes the deaths of approximately 5,000 American women yearly (Eng and Butler). Condoms offer no protection against HPV infection and limited protection against chlamydia infection (Winer, et al.).
Even if a teenager who is sexually active is spared pregnancy or the potential ravages of STDs, he or she will still pay a price emotionally. Close to two-thirds of teens who have had sexual intercourse wish they had waited longer (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy).
All in all, sex is a bad deal for young people. They deserve more from us adults than finger wagging, hand wringing, and brow scrunching. They also deserve something better than our merely giving them a condom. They deserve to hear from us that sex outside of marriage is wrong, that it is harmful, and that we have enough faith in them to believe they can make healthy decisions.
No matter what conventional wisdom may say, sex among teenagers is not inevitable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from 1991 to 1999 the percentage of high school students who have ever had sexual intercourse fell from 54.1% to 49.9% (Youth Risk Behavior Survey). Kind of blows a hole in the myth, doesn't it?
Maynard, R.A., ed. Kids Having Kids: A Robin Hood Foundation Special Report on the Costs of Adolescent Childbearing. New York: Robin Hood Foundation, 1996.
"Fertility, Family Planning, and Women's Health: New Data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth." Vital and Health Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1997:23(19).
Sexually Transmitted Disease in America: How Many Cases and at What Cost? American Social Health Association. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998.
2000 Assisted Reproductive Technology Success Rates: National Summary and Fertility Clinic Reports. American Society of Reproductive Medicine, 2000.
Cervical Cancer: NIH Consensus Development Statement. National Institutes of Health, 1996; 43(1):1-30.
Eng, T.R., Butler, W.T. (eds). The Hidden Epidemic--Confronting Sexually Transmitted Disease. Institute of Medicine. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997; 32.
Winer, R.L., Lee, S.K., Hughes, J.P., Adam, D.E., Kiviat, N.B., and Koutsky, L.A. "Genital human papillomavirus infection: Incidence and risk factors in a cohort of female university students." American Journal of Epidemiology, 2003; 157:218-226.
Not Just Another Thing to Do. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. June 30, 2002. Accessed at www.teenpregnancy.org.
"Youth Risk Behavior Survey--United States, 1999." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2000; 49(SS05); 1-96.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joe S. McIlhaney, Jr., M.D., is president and founder of The Medical Institute for Sexual Health (P.O. Box 162306, Austin TX 78716). A non-profit medical organization, the institute was founded in 1992 to confront the worldwide epidemics of non-marital pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection with incisive health care data.