By Amy Schalet
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Sarah Palin faced a variety of questions at last week's debate, but not the one I would have asked: "Should public school students be taught that contraception and condoms can prevent unintended pregnancy and disease?"
Palin has referred to her teenage daughter's pregnancy as a normal "up and down" of family life. Sympathetic politicians and commentators, including Bill Clinton, have concurred, attributing teenage pregnancies to "raging hormones" and saying that since the couple plans to marry, Bristol Palin's pregnancy is really an early awakening to adult responsibilities.
But left obscured by the raging-hormones explanation is the fact that teen pregnancy is far from inevitable. Like some other controversies at the heart of the culture wars, this problem -- which, after receding nationally since the early 1990s, appears to be worsening again -- need not exist. High teen pregnancy rates result in part from our inability to talk honestly and wisely about teen sexuality. And they are exacerbated by policies that prohibit such talk.
American teenagers grow up in environments that inhibit them from making conscious choices about sex and using contraception effectively. Sarah Palin supports programs that contribute to that environment, favoring policies that prohibit teachers from explaining the benefits of contraception and condoms and that require teaching that sex outside of marriage is unacceptable.
Such "abstinence-until-marriage" policies are built on the myth of a past when people did not have sex until they were married and, this thinking goes, prevented many of the troubles that plague society today. But for more than half a century, the majority of Americans have been having premarital sex. In the 1950s, one in three teenage mothers conceived out of wedlock. And many "shotgun" marriages ended in divorce.
Teenage parents face an even taller order today; it is no longer as easy for a man without a college degree to get a well-paying job to provide for a family, and young women rightly expect to pursue their talents both inside and outside the home, a challenge to pull off without higher education.
Simply put, the circumstances and aspirations of young people have changed since the 1950s, but our society's narratives about the place of sexuality and the nature of relationships do not reflect these changes. And we pay a price for that inability to talk realistically about teenage sexuality and love.
Just how steep, and unnecessary, that price is becomes clear when we look at countries where teenagers do not pay it. In the Netherlands, young people become sexually active at the same age as their American and other counterparts across the developed world -- around 17 -- but teenage pregnancy rates are six times lower than they are here.
In 1950s Dutch society, most young people began having sex when they were in their 20s and were married or engaged. During the 1960s, unintended teenage pregnancies rose alarmingly. Seeing this, family physicians and clinics were quick to make contraceptives easily accessible to youth. Dutch teen pregnancy and abortion rates are now among the lowest in the developed world.
National surveys show that most Dutch parents accept that young people choose to have sex in committed relationships during their later teens. Research I conducted found that a majority of Dutch parents are even willing to permit such couples to spend the night together in their homes, but only when they see that they have formed a loving relationship, feel ready for sex and understand how to use contraception responsibly. By accepting teen sexuality within these parameters, Dutch parents can stay involved, monitor relationships and urge proper contraceptive use.
This shift from a "marriage-only" to a "love-only" sexual ethic happened because parents, aided by honest and informative public conversations about sex, grappled with how to marry their aspirations -- about the children they wanted to raise and the relationships they wanted to foster -- to times that were changing. The result is an environment in which young people receive support from parents and other adults as they learn about relationships and wise sexual choices.
American teenagers lack such an environment. All too often, they feel sex is a secret that can ruin their lives. Bristol Palin's pregnancy does little to dispel the fear that the risks of sex cannot be controlled. With impending parenthood a surely unintended byproduct of her youthful experiences, at age 17 hers is a life constrained in ways that few of us would want for ourselves or our loved ones.
The Palins, of course, deserve credit for their public embrace of their eldest daughter, which shows that, ideology notwithstanding, parents still love their daughters even if they have sex. If that embrace allays fears that prompt girls to keep sex a secret from their parents, then the Republican Party may have, inadvertently, facilitated the honest conversations we need to move beyond the myth-only approach to adolescent sexuality.
The writer is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.