Playing With Teen Sex Statistics: A Lesson in Lies

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Playing With Teen Sex Statistics: A Lesson in Lies

Amanda Marcotte

Only 43 percent of teens have had sex, so we don't need sex ed and access to contraceptives?  Well, according to that logic, I've got a few other things we no longer need.

There are many goofy aspects to this Life Site News story arguing that because a slim majority of teenagers don’t have sex, we don’t need to teach them about contraceptive methods. Perhaps the most puzzling is why they came out with the story on July 14th, since the report came out a month and a half ago.  (In classic Life Site fashion, they don’t actually link the report, for fear that a stray reader may actually read it an clue into the fact that their spin is dishonest.)  Did it take the American Life League this long to craft a response?  If so, you’d expect them to come up with something less transparently silly than this:

ALL says that the CDC report, entitled “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Child Bearing, National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG),” debunks Planned Parenthood’s constant mantra that most teens will not abstain. In particular the pro-life organization points to the words of Planned Parenthood Federation of America vice president of medical affairs, Vanessa Cullens, from a YouTube video directed toward teens: “Admit that you are a sexually active individual like most of us, and that you are going to have sex and that you need to take precautions in order to stay healthy.”

The number of lies is this paragraph are astounding, a real feat in maximizing the dishonesty per syllable. As per their usual strategy, Life Site didn’t link so that you can verify their lies yourself, but I’ll happily link it so you can verify.  There is nothing whatsoever to suggest this is a video aimed at adolescents specifically.  In fact, this video is explicitly aimed at people who have already decided to have sex or are already having sex, regardless of age.   

Then there’s the suggestion that because only 42 percent of girls and 43 percent of boys ages 15 to 19 have had sex, then there’s no need whatsoever for anything but abstinence-only education, because a majority don’t need to know about contraception.  This argument only works if you believe that a group of people doesn’t count unless they’re majority.  Let’s apply this argument to other contexts, to see if it holds as well as Life Site seems to think.

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  • According to the Humane Society, only 39 percent of Americans are dog owners.  Using ALL’s logic, this means that there is no need in the United States for dog food, leashes, dog parks, or veterinarians that work with dogs.
  • In 2008, the Republican candidate for President only got 46 percent of the vote.  According to the logic laid out by ALL, this means there is no need for the RNC, Republican fund-raisers, or any Republican infrastructure at all.
  • Men only make up 48.9 percent of the U.S. population.  Subsequently, ALL should argue that we have no need for male-specific medical care, clothing, sports teams, or literature.  If you have prostate cancer or need Viagra, fellas, too bad.  You  have to get Pap smears like the majority.

Then there’s the deceit behind conflating abstaining with simply not having sex.  That most teenagers are virgins doesn’t mean most teenagers are abstaining until marriage.  In fact, like 95 percent of Americans before them, teenagers will probably have sex before marriage.  And those who get married will still have a need for comprehensive sex education, and I worry about the health of the marriages of those who insist that married people don’t benefit from being educated about sex.

Life Site tries to shore up the dishonest conflation of abstinence and simply not getting laid yet (with some kids, not for lack of trying) by pointing out that the number one reason that the still-virgins claimed they weren’t having sex is religious or moral reasons. If you read the report, you’ll find that this is true of less than 30 percent of the virgins.  That means that only about 12 percent of teenagers are interested in the moral arguments for abstinence.  Even if you assume—and there’s really no reason to assume this—that all 12 percent of them will stay firm in their convictions, that means that 88 percent of kids have a current or future need to be educated in safe sexual practices for premarital sex.  And that the 12 percent will still need this education should they want to use contraception in marriage, or in the likely event they change their minds about abstaining. 

And sadly, this entire discussion leaves out the teenagers that are queer and disinterested in penis-in-vagina intercourse, which is what the CDC is mainly interested in.

The CDC certainly doesn’t conflate abstinence and simply not having had the opportunity/desire yet to have sex.  That’s why they break down the survey respondents into two groups, basically high school and post-high school aged teenagers.  And we find, if we look at that data, exactly how dishonest Life Site is being.  Twenty-eight percent of girls ages 15 to 17 are having sex, according to the CDC, but 60 percent of having sex at ages 18 to 19.  Not doing it now doesn’t mean avoiding sex forever, which should be a common sense observation, but sadly needs to be spelled out in our current environment.

Of course, the whole point of comprehensive sex education is not and has never been only to address itself to non-virgins.  In an ideal world, you get good sex education before you start having sex, so that you’re better prepared to make healthy choices when you do start having sex.  This common sense realization that time actually moves on, and what is true today (that someone is a virgin) may not be true tomorrow (when they fall in love and/or just get really horny and start having sex) should be underpinning our sex education, instead of these frantic, illogical missives from anti-choice organizations that put their loathing of human sexuality before public health needs. If most high school kids aren’t having sex yet, that means that it’s that much more important to get them good sex education, so when they start having sex—and statistics overwhelmingly show that they will—they know how to make healthy choices.

Topics and Tags:

statistics, Teen Sex