Teenage Sex Is Just Like Adult

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Even more than the economic and adult-teen aspects of teen sex and pregnancy, the uncanny parallels between teen and adult sexual outcomes are the most ignored factor of all. In fact, teenage sex is a closely controlled behavior, reflecting the sexual behaviors of adults around them. Where and when adults have high rates of pregnancy, abortion, birth, unwed birth, STD, and HIV/AIDS, so do teenagers. The chief complication is that high rates of poverty shift a population's sexual outcomes to younger ages, but the parallel with adult outcomes remains uncanny. There is also an interesting partial exception— the large, post-1990 decline in pregnancy among teens and young adults— that has been poorly analyzed, a research deficiency Chapter 5 dissects.

The pivotal adult roles, both in terms of the older age of most sexual partners in teenage pregnancy and the parallel nature of teen and adult sexual outcomes, reflect a crucial reality: under similar conditions, adults and teenagers behave in remarkably similar ways. As one sage put it on the University of California, Santa Cruz, radio station's "Sounds of Young America" program: "The world works exactly like your eighth grade prom."

Teenagers are not defiant rebels against, but conformists to, adult morality and sensibility. Sociologist Kristen Luker points out, "like teenagers, adult Americans get pregnant more often when they do not intend to, pass on more sexually transmitted diseases, and have higher abortion rates than almost any other adults in the industrialized world." I fault young people for not having better judgment than to emulate us, but not enough to actually improve my own behaviors.

The close relationship between adult and teen sexual outcomes can be tested mathematically by a technique known as multiple regression. Regression analysis begins with an outcome (in this case, rates of teen pregnancy by race and state) and proceeds to show which of a number of potential causes are the most important in predicting the outcome. Reasonably complete and consistent statistics on births (both marital and unwed), abortions, and miscarriages, which add up to total pregnancies, were available by age of female and race/ethnicity (white, black, Hispanic) for 47 states and the District of Columbia.44,45 Other relevant variables such as poverty rates, unemployment rates, percentage of population that is foreign born, state median personal incomes, school enrollment rates, school spending levels, percentage of children living in two-parent families, and marital status rates46 were added to the regression analysis to pin down what characteristics go with high or low rates of teenage pregnancy.

The question this regression analysis sought to answer is: Are teenage pregnancy rates (including rates of birth, unwed birth, abortion, miscarriage, and total pregnancy) still associated with the factor of teen age once other factors (such as corresponding adults' rates of birth, unwed birth, abortion, miscarriage, and total pregnancies, and poverty, income, and other social characteristics) are included? Such questions have crucial policy implications. If teenage sexual behaviors simply reflect those of adults and fit into the continuum of larger American standards, then we should address teen and adult problems as integrated, not as separate, issues.

The results of the regression analysis were compelling. Normally, a set of variables that explains as much as one-fourth of the behavior in question are trumpeted as key finds; factors that account for as much as half are treated as a breakthrough. In this case, the variables accounted for an astounding 81 percent of the differences in teen pregnancy rates by race and state. Just two factors—the adult pregnancy rate and the youth poverty rate by race and state—were associated with 82 percent of variation in teen pregnancy rates. These two variables accounted for 78 percent of the variation in birth rates and 90 percent of the variation in abortion rates. Adult sexual outcomes were the strongest predictor by far of teenage outcomes; poverty levels simply adjusted the prediction a bit.

When regression variables this strong are found, it is safe to say that teenage and adult sexual behaviors under similar economic and social conditions are one and the same. We are not looking at two separate sexualities, the adult version of which can be accepted and encouraged while the teenage version is deplored and prevented. We are looking at the same behaviors, just as if we were comparing, say, sexual outcomes for Americans born in July with those born in August.

American society accepts nonmarital sex and, grudgingly, nonmarital pregnancy for adults. The logical result is that nonmarital sex and pregnancy then become acceptable for teenagers and teenagers with adult partners. Selective moral imprecations affirming our adult right to sexual indulgence (despite clear consequences evident in statistics on unwanted outcomes) while condemning similar behaviors for anyone under age 20 (or 21 or 25 or 18, or whatever age) do not work and should not work, as we will see.

Getting things this wrong about teen sex and pregnancy did not happen overnight. Many years of consistent warping of the facts, trends, and realities faced by young people went in to producing today's dung heap of unreality. The next chapters discuss how earnest, early 1900s movements concerned with the sexual health of young people devolved into cynical, early 2000s enterprises concerned with grownups who are interested in getting more money, good press, and elected.

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Pregnancy Guide

Pregnancy Guide

A Beginner's Guide to Healthy Pregnancy. If you suspect, or know, that you are pregnant, we ho pe you have already visited your doctor. Presuming that you have confirmed your suspicions and that this is your first child, or that you wish to take better care of yourself d uring pregnancy than you did during your other pregnancies; you have come to the right place.

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