Sunday, March 07, 2004

NYT - A New Teenage Culture of Restraint

Now here's a story that's guaranteed to cause heartburn for people in both aisles of America's culture war, what with having an interracial romance of the most taboo variety - white female with nonwhite male - and teenagers practicing abstinence, something only conservative curmudgeons could possibly expect them to do.

Jasmine and Alberto Kissing

Alberto and Jasmine are 16-year-old sweethearts, or were until that day in November when Jasmine, who planned to be a virgin until marriage, learned in the halls of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx that Alberto was "messing around."

She raged, she wept and she broke up with him. He apologized, he cried and she took him back. Then she suggested they cut school and have sex — "to keep him," she explained tearfully.

It could have been one of the oldest stories in the book, except for the real-life ending: Alberto said no.

Though he is just one teenager — short and freckled, with close-cropped kinky hair, a Hispanic surname and an electric smile — his personal decision speaks to the underlying causes of an extraordinary demographic shift.

The teenage pregnancy rate in America, which rose sharply between 1986 and 1991 to huge public alarm, has fallen steadily for a decade with little fanfare, to below any level previously recorded in the United States. And though pregnancy prevention efforts have long focused almost exclusively on girls, it is boys whose behavior shows the most startling changes.

More than half of all male high school students reported in 2001 that they were virgins, up from 39 percent in 1990. Among the sexually active, condom use has soared to 65 percent, and nearly 73 percent among black male students. The trends are similar, if less pronounced, for female students, who remain slightly less likely than boys to report that they have had sex. Nowhere are the changes more surprising than in poor minority neighborhoods in Harlem and the Bronx, which a decade ago were seen as centers of a national epidemic of teenage pregnancy.

Researchers often sum up the findings in one tidy phrase: "less sex, more contraception." But there is nothing simple about their puzzlement over the reasons.

"The default position is 'Yahoo, let's have sex,' " said Sarah Brown, director of the private, nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "It takes some motivation in a highly sexualized culture for teenagers not to have sex. To use contraception takes a lot of motivation."

"I think there's something very profound going on. I don't think anybody understands in depth this change in teen culture."


In 1995, half of 15- to 19-year-old males reported having received oral sex, according to the National Survey of Adolescent Males, up from 44 percent in 1988. The steepest increase by far was among black teenagers, to 57 percent, from 25 percent in 1988; the prevalence among white teenagers, in contrast, was unchanged at 50 percent. Blacks of both sexes between 15 and 17 also showed the steepest decrease in sexual intercourse: a 28 percent decline from 1991 to 2001, according to a recent analysis by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Demographers point out that American teenage-pregnancy rates are still 2 to 10 times higher than those in other Western countries, which have had the same pattern of spike and fall since AIDS erupted. But better contraceptive practices and delays in first intercourse have contributed about equally to a 35 percent decline in birth rates among 15- to 17-year-olds in the United States, and to an even more impressive 46 percent decline among non-Hispanic blacks that age, according to the C.D.C. analysis of several studies. (emphases added)

The picture is a mixed one, but it does give some support to both those who advocate abstinence education and those who want to see greater contraceptive use. I have no religious or moral hangups about such matters myself, and I think condoms ought to be freely available to those intent on having sex, but I've never been able to wrap my head around the reasoning that said "teenagers can't be expected to resist sexual temptation" either. We aren't mere creatures of instinct, after all, and a rational young person can come to the conclusion that sex, whatever its pleasures, ought to be delayed until its consequences can be fully handled. There really is no such thing as completely safe sex, and one won't go blind or insane from abstaining during the teenage years.

While we're at it, I also can't help noting that the statistical data on sexual practices by race also contravenes the expectations of those who like to make "blacks" out as sex-crazed brutes incapable of controlling their lusts. Apart from the stupidity of expecting that what holds true in the particular African-American context must be true of all people of African descent around the world, assuming that differences between groups must stem from supposedly "innate" causes is an all-too convenient excuse for writing others off as hopelessly inferior. To give another illustration of the dangers of an over-eagerness to find "genetic" explanations for all group disparities, a few decades ago one might have had "researchers" proposing that African-Americans had an "innately" higher propensity to smoke than their white co-citizens, and they'd have been able to brandish an army of statistics in "support" of their claims; as it turns out, today African-American teenagers are the least likely of all groups to engage in regular cigarette smoking.