Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is director of research and pubic education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking Press).
The Bush administration’s recent decision to fund programs urging unmarried 19-to-29 year-olds to abstain from sex has unleashed a storm of indignation around the country. When I was asked to comment on the policy on two radio talk shows, I was surprised to find that I was actually less offended by this right-wing initiative than were my conservative hosts and their audiences. Callers overwhelmingly expressed their outrage at the idea that the Feds should be paying people to advise grown adults on how to conduct their sex lives.
My own reaction is, in the words of our president, "Bring ‘em on." Here’s why I welcome the attempt to target older men and women with the abstinence-only message: It’s so ludicrous it’s almost harmless. I’m even willing to offer the religious rightists who have gradually taken over America’s sex education and reproductive health programs some free advice.
Wade Horn, the Bush administration’s point man on family issues, argues that the focus of abstinence-only campaigns needs to shift toward older singles because more births are occurring among unmarried women aged 19-29, and "the only 100 percent effective way" to reduce such out-of-wedlock births is to practice abstinence until marriage. But Horn is behind the curve on this issue.
If he wants to target the age groups where unwed childbearing is increasing the fastest, he should drop the 19-year-old category and raise the upper end of the age range even more. After all, the percentage of babies born to women 24 and under dropped by nearly 6 percent between 1991 and 2003, while the number of older unwed mothers has been climbing steadily. Today, nearly 30 percent of unwed mothers are between the ages of 25 and 29 when they give birth, and the number of unwed mothers aged 30 to 44 has risen by nearly 20 percent since 1991.
So I would urge the administrators of abstinence-only programs to get out there and tell those unmarried women in their late twenties and thirties to abstain from sex until they find a husband. And I wish them lots of luck.
No society in history has ever been able to convince young adults living on their own to remain celibate. Furthermore, many births to women aged 25 and older are not accidents. Such women don’t end up with kids because condoms or diaphragms failed. They have kids while still single because they haven’t yet found a worthy life mate. There are many reasons why women who want a child in today’s world may feel that entering motherhood outside of marriage beats marrying a man who can’t or won’t offer them a firm emotional and financial commitment. Among the different reasons that women choose to go it alone, or not to marry even if they are living with someone (40 percent of unwed births are to cohabiting couples), are the declining job prospects of young men with a high school education or less; high incarceration rates in African-American communities; and the ticking biological clock of more educated women who have postponed marriage and motherhood and then find themselves with a failed relationship on their hands.
Whatever we think of their decisions, the greater willingness of women to have children on their own is part of an ongoing, worldwide revolution in gender roles and the place of marriage in personal and social life. We might be able to increase some couples’ willingness to marry by providing men and women with better educational opportunities and living wage jobs, or by lessening the strains on couple relationships through family-friendly social policies. But a certain amount of unwed motherhood is clearly here to stay, and preaching abstinence will not change that.
So I welcome the diversion provided by this campaign. For if preaching abstinence to adults is ludicrous, targeting teenagers with abstinence-only propaganda is downright dangerous. Indeed, it often backfires. Look at the teen virginity pledges promoted by many of the very same religious groups pushing abstinence-only sex education programs. A long-term study at Yale and Columbia compared teens who took virginity pledges with those who did not. They found that nearly 9 out of 10 of those taking the pledge ended up having sex before marriage. The pledgers generally began having genital sex several months later than the non-pledgers, and they had fewer partners before marrying. But before losing their technical virginity, they were six times more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in risky practices such as unprotected oral and anal sex. And once the teens started having sexual intercourse, males who had taken the virginity pledge were much less likely to use a condom than males who did not take the pledge. In consequence, there were no statistically significant differences in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases among pledgers and non-pledgers. In fact, in communities where abstinence-only values were so prevalent that 20 percent or more of teens took the pledge, the rate of STDs was higher than in more permissive communities where less than 7 percent of teens took the pledge.
We have many examples of how, in the real world, moralistic "values" campaigns interact with ignorance and denial to produce the very opposite results of what their proponents hope to achieve. Divorce rates and unwed childbearing are higher in the Bible Belt than in more liberal parts of the country. And although Americans as a whole (including teens themselves) are much more disapproving of teen sex than people in Canada and Western Europe, on average, U.S. teens begin sex earlier, have more partners, and are much more likely to get STDs than their counterparts in countries where acceptance of teen sexuality is widespread and teens have easy access to comprehensive sex education and contraception.
Yet the right-wing stranglehold over policy-making on these issues has been so effective that in many regions, so-called "faith-based" programs threaten to replace scientifically-designed programs to improve the sexual and reproductive health of teens. In 1988, only 2 percent of American students received "abstinence-only" classes as their sole source of sex education. Today, this is true for more than a third of all students. When a congressional committee examined these abstinence programs in 2004, nearly 80 percent were found to present incorrect information, such as the false claim that condoms fail 31 percent of the time, or that "sex outside of marriage increases [the] risk of mental illness, depression and suicide."
The abstinence-only movement does not protect the reproductive and sexual health of American teens. And when it is incorporated into international policy, as in the attempt to promote abstinence instead of condoms in programs to fight AIDS and curb unwanted pregnancies in the undeveloped world, the abstinence crusade directly threatens the well-being of millions of people. Calling this movement "faith-based" is an insult to the majority of religious Americans who combine their faith with respect for scientific study. These are not "faith-based" programs. They are fantasy-based programs. If we can’t awaken their proponents to reality, by all means let’s encourage them to focus their efforts on the least vulnerable population: the millions of unwed American adults who have the maturity and self-confidence to see these programs for the shams that they are.