When teenagers say 'no' to sex

Posted: Mar 15, 2004 12:00 AM

The ranks of the "good girls" are growing. Teenage pregnancies are down, way down. The high rates recorded in the 1980s, peaking in 1990 at 116.9 of every thousand girls, have steadily declined. Among teenage girls between 15 to 19 years old in 2000, the rate was 83.6 per 1,000 girls. The good news reaches across all racial and ethnic groups in every one of the states.

How did this good news, calculated from surveys by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, happen? Some of the reasons are obvious: fear of sexually transmitted disease, especially AIDS; Welfare reform that no longer provides financial incentives for pregnant teens; aggressive pursuit of child support from young fathers; the campaign for birth control; and not least, the campaign for abstinence that was once widely hooted at.

All these issues played their part, but the incredible turnaround suggests that something more is going on. "It takes some motivation in a highly sexualized culture for teenagers not to have sex," Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Age Pregnancy, told the New York Times. "To use contraception takes a lot of motivation. I think there's something very profound going on. I don't think anybody understands in depth this change in teen culture."

Teenagers are changing the message for themselves, having overdosed on the culture of movies, music and television that plays to the lowest common denominator of irresponsible sex and vulgarity. The adolescents among us may be tired of imitating the bad behavior of adults. Teenage girls are sick of being labeled "ho's," "sluts" "skeezers" and "slides" by the mindless slang of rap music. They want self-respect. What's more astonishing is that increasing numbers of young men want the same thing.

More than 50 percent of male high school students told the Alan Guttmacher surveyers they had not engaged in sexual intercourse in 2001, up from 39 percent in less than 10 years. Even accounting for the fibs and stretchers people tell about sex, this is an astonishing number. A lot of boys don't want to define themselves by rap music either.

There's clearly no headlong rush back to the "the frightful '50s" of their grandparents, but today's kids are far enough away from that much-maligned decade to reappraise what they inherited from the five decades since then. Rebellion is empty if there's no goal beyond narcissistic wishes. The pendulum that swings one way swings the other.

The "sexual revolution" that was so much fun for boomers coming of age dragged in a lot of problems, for both the under- and overclass. Poor women got trapped in families without a father and prosperous career women learned that the loneliness of the long distance runner was identical to that of the loneliness of the long distance dater.

Sadly, as adolescents are beginning to grow up, many grown-ups are still stuck in their own adolescence, trying to put off maturity. Joseph Epstein, writing in the Weekly Standard, describes the current era as that of the "the perpetual adolescent and the triumph of the youth culture." He suggests that young adults today have the tastes of teenage boys and both are victims of and responsible for the dumbing down of the culture.

"The most consequential adolescent act in American history during the past half century," he writes, was the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. It lacked not only the sophistication of an adult affair, accompanied by wine and roses, but grooved on pizza with groping beneath the desk. "No matter what one's politics, one has to admit that our great national scandal was pure high school." It was adolescent sex as adult farce.

Today, it's just possible that teenagers want to graduate from the compulsion of glands and hormones to a culture of restraint and responsibility. This perception has inspired a small pilot program in the nation's capital called "Best Men." It starts in the sixth grade and challenges boys to become "worthy of respect." Best Men follows the lead of a successful program for girls called "Best Friends" founded in 1987 by Elayne Bennett (www.bestfriendsfoundation.org).

Both programs promote abstinence from sex, drugs, alcohol and violence, encouraged by peer and parental support and classes in physical fitness and mentoring by role models. When the Best Men were compared with eighth-grade peers in 2002-2003, sexual activity had declined by 20 percent, drug use by 33 percent, alcohol use by 22 percent.

The Best Men logo symbolizes a modern day knight of honor with symbols of strength, courage, foresight, truth and justice. Who knows? Chivalry may not be far behind.