Good News about Teen Abstinence

by Christine Kim

Teens and young twentysomethings of both sexes are more likely to have remained abstinent from sexual activity than they were a few years ago, according to new data released last week from the CDC.

The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) finds that the percentage of females 15–24 who have never had any form of sexual contact increased by almost one-third, from 22.7 percent in 2002 to 29.9 percent in 2006–08. The figures are similar for teenage boys and young men: Total male abstainers in the same age group increased by one-quarter, from 22.6 percent to 28.3 percent, during this period. 

Despite the recent barrage of MTV shows and celebrity teen-mom headlines, we know from other government data that abstinence among teens has been increasing since the 1990s. Subsequently, teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates have all dropped significantly in the last two decades. ( traces these trends in a new series of charts on teen sex and related outcomes.)

News coverage tends to focus on percentage-point changes in teen births while woefully neglecting the explosion in overall unwed births, which is occurring primarily among twentysomethings. Indeed, three out of five babies born outside marriage are to women in their 20s, a 16-fold since 1960.

This has huge implications not just for the young women and men involved but for society as well. For decades, research has demonstrated the consistent link between unwed childbearing and poverty and government dependence.

Why is this happening among emerging adults? First, they are delaying marriage. The median age of first marriage has increased by six years for women in the last five decades, from 20.1 in 1959 to 25.9 in 2009, and for men by 5.6 years, from 22.5 to 28.1. Young adults still idealize marriage and most want to get married eventually. But in the meantime, they are increasingly divorcing sex and children from marriage, which is no longer a prerequisite for either. 

In a recent book on premarital sex among emerging adults in America, University of Texas (Austin) sociologist Mark Regnerus and his colleague Jeremy Uecker provide another fascinating insight. Their book is premised on the notion of “sexual economics,” that is, applying the law of supply and demand to sexual decisions among young adults. What they find is troubling, particularly for young women. 

As Regnerus writes in a recent article, “[D]espite the fact that women hold the sexual purse strings, they aren’t asking for much in return these days — the market ‘price’ of sex is currently very low.” He cites several causes: the spread of pornography, the pill, and fewer social constraints on sexual relationships. Consequently, women in their 20s are behaving more like men in their sexual decisions than they did a generation ago. “The price of sex is low, in other words, in part because its costs to women are lower than they used to be,” Regnerus concludes.

Just as important is the fact that young women are outperforming young men on a number of measures. There are now more women on college campuses than men, and this affects the dynamics of dating, sex, and ultimately marriage. As Regnerus notes, in “markets,” e.g., college campuses, where men outnumber women, marriage goes up and unwed childbearing goes down. But when opposite is true, when there are more women than men, the culture trends toward permissiveness. 

So when the NSFG reports that emerging adults are more likely to abstain from any form of sexual contact than before, it is surely a welcome bit of news. 

Christine Kim is a policy analyst in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

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