09/17/2010 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Misunderstanding Abstinence Begets More Bristol Palins

Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement on sexuality, contraception and the media. It emphasized that the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the Western World, and that adolescents have among the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections of any age group. It reviewed the studies on the relationship between the availability of contraception and sexual activity, denouncing what it termed the "dangerous myth" that giving teens access to birth control will make them sexually active at younger ages. What is it did not discuss is the ironic role of the "wait until marriage" efforts in driving up the rates of single parenthood.

The college educated middle class, which has deferred marriage until their late twenties and beyond, has no illusions about the prospects for abstinence through the completion of graduate school. Yet it has successfully held the line on single parenthood, with non-marital birthrates that have fallen during a period in which they have risen for the everyone else. Moral values advocates, who preach abstinence, oppose abortion, fight the greater availability of contraception, and promote marriage, decry the rise of the country's non-marital birth to 40%. But the group most likely to espouse these values, whites who begin families in their early twenties and traditionalists of all races, have seen their divorce and non-marital birth rates continue to increase. What explains the irony? We believe it is the failure to think about alternatives when abstinence fails.

To understand what these fallbacks are, it's necessary to recognize the changed nature of successful marriages. This means starting with the real sexual revolution: the one in the fifties. In that decade, the number of women who had sex before their twenty-first birthdays rose from 40 to 70%, the average age of marriage dropped to 20 for women, the lowest in a century, and the number of brides giving birth within eight and a half months of their nuptials rose to 30%, the highest percentage since 1800. Two things fueled these trends. First was the rise of the car and the suburbs, which facilitated a more mobile society in which teens found it easier to escape prying adult eyes. The second factor was post-war prosperity. A young man just out of high school could get a job, making early marriage viable. And adoption rates soared, providing a fallback when all else failed.

What we think of as the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies had less to do with a change in sexual practices -- those had already given way -- than with a rethinking of the alternatives. As we explain in Red Families v. Blue Families, while parents of ambitious teens agree that abstinence at fifteen is a good idea, they have few illusions about abstinence through four years at a college far from home, and they prepare their children accordingly. Moreover, while marriage by twenty-three was once the norm for college grads, today the most stable marriages are those that occur later. The shot gun weddings of the fifties fueled the divorces of the seventies, and youthful unions are even less stable today than they were in 1980.

Abstinence advocates want to bring back the stigma associated with non-marital sex, but to do so requires either a high degree of compliance and/or draconian consequences. If, as they advocate, abortion is unthinkable, then the only remaining options are marriage or single parenting. And once you have the Bristol Palins of the world joining movie stars on the covers of magazines with their adorable newborns, the stigma against non-marital parenting has disappeared.

So the college bound have held the line on single parenthood -- and driven their divorce rates back down to the level of the sixties -- because they have given up the stigma against non-marital sexuality and instead focused on managing the consequences. This means individualized counseling for teen daughters (multiple partners and early sex are still a bad idea); promoting the universalization of contraception as a rite of passage into adulthood, rather than something that only "bad girls" use; and, yes, accepting abortion as the responsible fallback. One of the striking changes for this group is that as the norm of responsible contraception has taken hold, the abortion rates of college grads has fallen substantially, and as abortion has become less common, ambivalence about it has grown. Nonetheless, while college graduates have lower abortion rates than any other group in the population, they continue to abort a higher percentage of unplanned pregnancies than the rest of the population. They do so precisely because non-marital birth remains unacceptable.

Here, as in so many other ways, Bristol Palin is the perfect symbol of the abstinence cause. The fascinating part of Sarah and Todd's reaction to their daughter's re-engagement to (and almost immediate breakup with) Levi Johnston is the fact that the Palins were not particularly happy that Bristol had decided to marry the father of her eighteen-month-old son. Given a choice of single parenthood or Levi, single parenthood apparently looks pretty good. The Palins are not alone. A good sperm count and a ring do not by themselves turn a young cad into a promising husband. And without the viability of early marriage, insistence on abstinence without the fallback of contraception (and abortion) can only increase the number of single parents.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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