San Francisco psychologist Lynn Ponton's The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls (2000) made a big splash, mainly due to her unfortunate fascination with tabloid-style trash (i.e., a teen who masturbates with a vacuum cleaner) and the sensationalized first and last chapters that undermine her better points. Ponton wants more Americans to "view adolescent sexuality as a potentially positive experience, rather than sanctioning it as one fraught with danger."25 Her strategy, sadly mismatched to that worthy goal, is to scare adults with panicky anecdotes of teenage danger.
Contrary to the book cover's promise, The Sex Lives of Teenagers does not reveal "the secret world of adolescent boys and girls." It simply recounts some lurid stories from her more extreme clients that she misrepresents as signs of the times. Teenagers, she says, "are taking greater risks" with sex, "with consequences that include sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and pathological relationships, among others." She claims that "HIV infections are falling in the United States, but they are not falling for young people" and that "half of the forty thousand people being infected with HIV in the United States are twenty-four years old or younger." As we have seen, this simply is not the case. Teens today display substantially lower rates of pregnancy, birth, abortion, HIV, and other STDs we can measure over time, which are fairly solid measures of sexual risk-taking. Far from being younger and younger, teens who get pregnant today tend to be older (18 or 19) than in the past.
The reason for Ponton's strange deceptions soon becomes evident. She seems to believe that if the public and policymakers can be convinced that teens are taking more dangerous risks, they will implement her brand of benign sexuality education and liberal programs. Instead, as we have seen, the predictable reactions to negative depictions ofteenage sex have been anger, repression, and the same abstinence-only regimes Ponton rues. Progressives who think that creating more fear of young people will advance their liberal ideals must have been under a rock for the last 30 years. The best way to promote sex-education, as opposed to abstinence-education, is to depict young people's sexual trends accurately.
Ponton could have made a stunningly factual case that despite apparently engaging in more sex, teens today are taking far fewer risks and suffering diminishing pregnancy and disease outcomes and therefore merit more confidence and affirmation. Instead, by airing dire myths of rising teenage sexual risk-taking and consequences, Ponton sabotages her own appeal that Americans accept teenage sexuality.
The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (2006, 2001, 1988, 1981), by David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and long-time Parents magazine columnist, may be the best-read work on youth issues. In my view, Elkind has been a major generator of demeaning myths about adolescents for decades. His 1970s notions (mostly gleaned from reading some diaries) that adolescents, unlike adults, suffer delusions of
"imaginary audience" and "personal fable" were bad enough. His major work, now in its fourth edition, arguing that the innate incompetence of youths combined with destructive pop-culture images have created a crisis of "growing up too fast" is even worse. Unfortunately, it is often cited as a classic.
Elkind's books present a dizzying array of flatly wrong numbers, uncorrected even in later editions, to buttress his claim that childhood today is "under assault." On the subject of teen sex, his claims that teenage pregnancy and STDs have risen to "general... great" [meaning high] levels today versus only "small... numbers" in the past have already been rebutted. A few more samples of craziness from The Hurried Child:
• "In 1995, the rate of childbearing among women between the ages of 15 to 19 was 90 births per 1,000 women."
• The decline in teenage birth rates from 1995 to 2000 "is more an index of the increased availability of abortion than it is of a decline in teenage pregnancies."
• The teenage "share seems to be increasing" for sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS cases.
Perusing readily available, standard reports reveals Elkind's tendency to fiction:
• The CDC reports the birth rate was 57 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 1995 (not 90), far below the peak at 97 per 1,000 in 1957. Since 1995, the birth rate among women age 15 to 19 has fallen still further, to 42 per 1,000 by 2008.
• Abortion has dropped as well. From 1995 to 2000, the CDC reports, the birth rate fell 15 percent and the abortion rate fell 16 percent among teens. By 2006, teen pregnancy rates had fallen to their lowest levels since first reported in 1973.
• The CDC's surveillances show rates of STD infection in teenagers have been dropping since 1975 and now stand at the same level as in 1955, when reports were much less complete. Teens are the only age group to show declines in new HIV and new AIDS cases from the early 1990s through the latest, 2008, CDC surveillance.27
These are only a few of Elkind's easily-documented errors across a variety of teen issues. When errors this egregious persist through edition after edition (I have pointed out Elkind's gross inaccuracies for years), it is fair to say the author and publishers do not regard factuality as important. And no wonder. Accuracy would disconfirm Elkind's thesis of adolescence gone terribly wrong due to young people's incompetence and pop-culture influences.
Manhattan Institute scholar and Youth Today columnist Kay Hymowitz, author of Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—and Ours (1999), is another practitioner of Make It Up ethics. Her conservative nostalgia myth that the pre-1960s represented a golden era of "procultural" values and the present a dystopia of "anticultural" youthful immorality is even sillier than Elkind's. Hymowitz lionizes the 1950s and earlier eras as times of healthy "republican values" in which "kids" did not have sex. All that is needed to demolish this fanciful thinking is to check easily available vital statistics reports, which show that more than 1.5 million girls under age 18 gave birth during the decade of the 1950s. The birth rate among girls under age 15 was 50 percent higher then than now. Teens most certainly did have sex back when Father Knows Best, Doris Day, and Pat Boone ruled the airwaves.
Is more "kids" having sex responsible for the "dramatic increases in the rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, welfare dependency, fatherlessness, and abortion," as Hymowitz charges? No. Not even nearly. Hymowitz does not tell us how she defines "kids" or over what period "increases" are calculated. So, let us adopt the standard definitions: under 18 years old, and since 1960. Before that, teens were raised in the 1940s and 1950s eras that Hymowitz lionized. Nothing she claims turns out to be occurring on this planet. For example, from 1960 to 2007, the number of births by unmarried couples rose from 224,300 to 1,714,600 (that is, by nearly 1.5 million):
• Of this increase, 90,000, or 6 percent, involved "kids" (mothers under age 18, mostly with fathers over age 18).
• Babies produced by two "kids" under age 18 (as opposed to a "kid" with an adult partner) accounted for less than 3 percent of the total increase.
• Mothers under age 20 (again, most fathers were over age 20) accounted for less than one-fifth of the increase; babies conceived by two teens, less than 10 percent.29
The increase in unwed childbearing has, overwhelmingly, been an adult phenomenon kicked off in a big way by elders raised in the pre-1960 era, not by modern teens. Repeating these calculations for abortion (difficult, since statistics are not available before 1973), fatherlessness (the census-measured proportions of families in which one parent is not present), and welfare costs shows sex by "kids" accounts for only minuscule fractions. What kind of grownup blames "kids" so that adults can evade responsibility for their behaviors?
Hymowitz's partisan dishonesty is revealed by her abrupt reversal in a 2004 article, in which she admitted statistics show "kids are improving."30 Her article is peppered with the usual specious anecdotes claiming to show that suddenly Americans are embracing "old-fashioned virtues like caution, self-restraint, commitment, and personal responsibility," and that "family values are hot!" Why the about-face? Because, unlike in 1999 when she clarioned teenage apocalypse, conservative Republicans she liked ran the country in 2004, led by George W. Bush, a president she declared young people supported more than anyone. (Another fiction. Exit polls in both 2000 and 2004 showed young voters resoundingly rejected Bush.)
It is true that 2000s teens were showing signs of reacting against Boomer irresponsibilities—specifically, the deteriorating behaviors of the older generations raised during the "republican" past eras Hymowitz lauds—but most of these trends had been building over decades. In any case, Hymowitz, displaying singular instability, quickly returned to her youth-trashing ways— after all, a Democrat now occupies the White House. Her more recent writings show no more respect for factuality and scholarship than in the past.
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