Monday, December 13, 2004

Increased Abstinence, Condom Use Among Teens

I recently heard about an interesting report on NPR's All Things Considered. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that teens are abstaining longer from having sex and when they do engage in sexual activity, they're using condoms;

The proportion of never-married females 15-17 years of age who had ever had sexual intercourse dropped significantly from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002. At age 18-19, 68 percent had had intercourse in 1995, compared with 69 percent in 2002. For male teens, the percent of those who were sexually experienced dropped significantly in both age groups: from 43 percent to 31 percent at age 15-17, and from 75 percent to 64 percent at age 18-19. These and other data suggest that teenagers are delaying sex until somewhat older ages.

“There is much good news in these results,” said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. “More teenagers are avoiding or postponing sexual activity, which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy or emotional and societal responsibilities for which they are not prepared.”

At their first premarital intercourse, teens were most likely to choose condoms for birth control – 66 percent reported using a condom when they became sexually active. Teens are more likely in recent years to use contraception when they begin having intercourse—79 percent in 1999-2002, up from 61 percent in the 1980’s. Teens were also more likely to have used contraception at their most recent intercourse in 2002 (71 percent in 1995, compared with 83 percent in 2002). These changes in sexual activity and contraceptive use are consistent with the downward trend in teen pregnancy and births over the past decade.
What I find especially interesting in this report is that it is the dual message of abstinence and condom use that has brought these numbers down. So often we hear conservatives declaring that abstinence is the only way, and liberals claiming that condoms are the only realistic means to prevent STDs and teen pregnancies. This report suggests that combining these approaches offers the best results.

I've heard the argument that you can't teach abstinence, and then talk about condoms, as the young people will hear too mixed a message. I think that underestimates the ability of teens to struggle with complex issues.

Most teens are going through a period of self-discovery. They are trying to find out who they are, apart from their family and other social groups. Part of this search involves questioning many of the beliefs they inherited from their parents. This questioning includes morality as well as spirituality. I think this is a healthy process, and needs to be encouraged.

In the midst of this search, some of the morality questions can remain a bit gray for some time. Yet some decisions, such as having sex or not, can be decided on pragmatic factors rather than ethical ones. The message that seems to be getting through is that the only 100% sure way of not getting an STD is by abstaining. The next best method is the use of a condom. Many of our young people are more aware of what is going on in the world today than we might think. They know about AIDS/HIV. They know that the wrong decision may cost them their lives.

It appears that some of the teaching about the life-changing impact of teen pregnancies is also being heard, although I think this consideration is secondary to the dangers of STDs.

When conservatives and liberals work together, positive changes can be the result. Imagine that.


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