“In any given society, at any given moment in history, people become sexual the same way they become anything else. Without much reflection, they pick up directions from their social environment.”
~ John H. Gagnon, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Stony Brook University
Professor Gagnon’s statement speaks to one of my biggest questions:
Why does the U.S. have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates of any developed country?
And it’s not just teen pregnancy — U.S. teens start having sex at a younger age than their European peers. They also have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and abortion. But, and this is an important point, European and U.S. teens have the same rates of sexual activity.
If our teens are having sex at the same rate as teens in other developed countries, why are the rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, and abortion so much higher here?
From my experience living in Europe and from my professional reading, I think we need to consider the way we treat young people in respect to their relationships. Do we view them as individuals capable of making thoughtful decisions and being in loving relationships? I’m not sure we do that. Most often, we view teens as being in the “puppy love” phase.
Might this have an impact on teen pregnancy rates? “Absolutely,” say researchers with Advocates for Youth.
For ten years, starting in 1998, Advocates for Youth led a European Study Tour to examine the topic of teen sexual health. Study tour participants included health care professionals, educators, policy makers, parents, and young people. They examined medical and public health systems, listened to lectures from public policy representatives, learned about public education and media campaigns, visited clinics and school, and conducted a wide range of interviews with parents and youth.
Study tour participants discovered huge contrasts in programs, policies, and attitudes towards adolescent reproductive and sexual health between the U.S. and Europe. In exploring successful sexual health outcomes in Europe, study tours consistently noted four major contributing factors:
- A pragmatic approach to adolescent sexual health where science, not religious ideology, dictates public health policies and programs and education is valued, not feared;
- The effective use of mass media public education campaigns;
- A public acceptance of adolescent sexual development as normal and healthy; and
- A societal investment in youth as valued members of their community.
The emphasis is on rights, responsibility and respect — not abstinence.
This is so very different from the experience of most U.S. teens. If Professor Gagnon is right in saying that people become sexual based on the directions they get from their social environment, then it seems to me that the U.S. needs to create a different environment for our teens.
Next week, I’ll share examples of the ways in which family planning programs help to reduce teen pregnancy rates.