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The mixed messages teens hear about sex and how they matter

Although they start having sex at similar ages to teens in many other developed countries, US teens’ rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancies, abortions, and births are unusually high. Besides high levels of socioeconomic inequality, a major reason is their inconsistent use of contraceptive methods and low uptake of highly effective contraception. After investigating the cultural messages teens are hearing about sex, contraception, and pregnancy, I am convinced that these social norms and the social control of teens that comes with them are important culprits.

My research team interviewed college students and teen parents from many different places and backgrounds, asking them about the norms and social control around sex and pregnancy they experienced in high school. The interviewees depicted a complex social world of potent messages, inconsistencies, gossip, silence, conflicting control by others, and push back from teens themselves. Several normative dynamics undermine teens’ ability to use highly effective contraception consistently, these include:

1. Adults’ strong negative norms are usually paired with a lack of support for avoiding pregnancy and STIs. Parents, peers, and other adults uniformly discouraged teen pregnancy, as well as teen sex in most cases. But strong negative norms were rarely accompanied by concrete support for how to use contraception or say “no” to sex. Isaac told us that parents in his community said to teens, “Don’t get pregnant. I don’t care how you do it. I’m not going to give you condoms. You’re not supposed to get pregnant when you’re seventeen.” Alana’s mother’s message was similar in its strong discouragement paired with no concrete advice or support: “Every weekend when I would go out with my friends, she would say, ‘Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Be responsible. I hope you’re not fooling around.’” These strong messages left young people afraid to turn to adults for help about how to avoid sex or pregnancy, for fear of the social judgment that might follow.

 Although some close friends help each other access contraception or share information about sex, peers are mostly a threat rather than a source of support.

2. So that the teen can avoid negative sanctions, teens and the people who care about them are motivated to avoid sharing information about the teen’s violations of norms. This encourages conspiracies of silence between teens and adults. At the same time, like their US peers, most of my interviewees were sexually active during high school, but nearly all families avoided having the “me having sex talk.” When teens can’t acknowledge their sexual activity to their parents, it’s hard to use effective long-acting contraceptives like birth control pills or intrauterine devices. Teens may even avoid planning for sex with having contraception available, thus being able to claim the sex was a mistake and they didn’t set out to violate any norms. Such a strategy puts teens at risk for pregnancy and STIs.

3. Many schools are not filling this information vacuum around sex and pregnancy. Most US parents would like schools to teach teens both to wait with sex and how to avoid pregnancy and STIs if they are sexually active. According to our interviewees, some schools teach this information, but many do not. Instruction involving slide shows with pictures of STIs and lists of the failure rates of different types of contraception were common, but learning how to use contraception effectively was less so. It seems that many schools try to avoid controversy around teen sex and abstinence by reducing the information they provide. This may help a curriculum seem politically neutral, but also results in teens learning less about how to avoid sexual risks.

4. Peers aren’t filling the gap either. Although some close friends help each other access contraception or share information about sex, peers are mostly a threat rather than a source of support. The facts about teens’ sexual behaviors often have little to do with the rumors other teens believe. People make assumptions about teenagers’ (especially girls’) sexuality based on their race, class, and academic achievements. Over and over, participants discussing pregnant girls assumed that they were promiscuous, even though research shows that they’re more likely to be in a long-term romantic relationship. Ella expressed fear around teen pregnancy that “people will think I’m a slut. I think that’s what girls were more afraid of, the fact they’d be labeled a slut more than being pregnant.” Boys were almost never labeled this way, even when they were fathers. Wealthier White teens were more able to label their sexual behavior as a regrettable “mistake” and avoid getting stuck with a stigmatizing label. The loose link between facts and social judgments strengthens the climate of fear for many teens, making them less likely to seek support among peers.

What can be done? One option is to increase contraception access without parental involvement. Interventions like this one in Colorado have made highly effective contraception available to young women at no cost, driving steep drops in the teen birth rate. Another is to change norms to focus on encouraging teens to make deliberate, mature decisions about sexual behaviors and seek support from adults when they do become sexually active. A similar shift in norms occurred in the Netherlands after widespread public discussion, with subsequent improvements in teens’ sexual health. Paradoxically, by giving teens more power over their own decisions, we may be able to bring their sexual behaviors more in line with our goals for their futures.

Featured image credit: people teenagers young group by Unsplash. Public domain via Pexels.

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