Teen Sex Is Up? Blame Abstinence

More teens are having sex and fewer are using condoms, a new study says.  But whose fault is this setback in what had been an improving picture?

ABC's Good Morning America and National Public Radio put the blame on government-funded abstinence programs, which has become a media mantra, especially when funding is up for renewal, as it is now.  (For more evidence of this, click here.)

The Washington Post turned to abstinence-bashing experts in its front page article but balanced them with two pro-abstinence spokespeople.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings this week that show a two percent rise in the number of sexually active teens since 2001 and a decrease in the rate of condom usage.

According to Good Morning America, the findings mean that government-funded abstinence-only sex education (which gets a 10th of the money that condom-based programs get) has failed. GMA's news reader, Deborah Roberts said:

The government's campaign to convince teenagers to wait before having sex does not appear to be working. New data shows 48% of teens are sexually active. A 2% increase since 2001. Condom use has fallen slightly also to 62%.

This was the extent of Good Morning America's reporting on the study.

NPR's Morning Edition included two interviews, one from a pediatrician and another from a proponent for comprehensive sex education who blasted abstinence education.

NPR does get credit for including an important observation about the influence of culture and parents.

Glenn Flores is a pediatrician and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern. He's reviewed the survey. "Teens constantly face temptations in every part of their life," he says. … Flores says for parents who are concerned by these statistics, evidence suggests that it makes good sense to talk early and often to kids about sex. "There are studies that document that when a teen reports that they can talk to their parent about sexual issues and hve good communication, that they're less likely to be sexually active — and more likely to use condoms if they are sexually active," he says.

Of the three media sources reviewed, the Washington Post article by Rob Stein had the most balanced and in depth reporting. Here's a passage from the social conservative point of view:

"Contraceptive sex education does not provide practical skills for maintaining or regaining abstinence but typically gives teens a green light to activity that puts them at great risk for acquiring STDs or which serve as gateway-to-intercourse activities," said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.

Others blamed the onslaught of movies, books, advertising and cultural messages that they say glamorize sex.

"The No. 1 movie that all teenage girls want to see right now is 'Sex and the City,'" said Charmaine Yoest, a spokesman for the Family Research Council. "Our culture continues to tell them the way to be cool is to dress provocatively and to consider nonmarital sexual activity to be normative."

Yoest's observation is important.  On the day that this survey was reported in the Post, the paper's “Style” section had a glowing front page review of the new CBS series “Swingtown,” which is about the sexual license and drug use that marked the 1970s.  TV critic Tom Shales wrote that the “strangely refreshing” show contains “relatively explicit sexual depictions,” but he also complained that they did not go far enough.

Over on CBS's Early Show, reporter Daniel Sieberg did a story about teens taking nude pictures of themselves with their cell phones and distributing them over the Internet.

The culture, and a complicit media, shoves sex down the throats of children on a round-the-clock basis.  Accurately reporting a story about the sexual activity of America's teens requires taking into account more than sex education programs.  In this instance, the Washington Post's news article handled the topic well.