Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Do boys deserve credit for the declining teen birth rate?

Parenting, SexualityAndrew Smiler

A new report by the Pew Research Center tells us the teen birth continues to hit record lows. You may not have heard much about this; despite its importance in the lives of thousands (or millions) of teens and their families, there’s no good single answer for why this is happening. Thus, there’s no political “win” and no ongoing news coverage.

I think boys should get the credit.

To be sure, there can’t be a single answer to a question like “why is the teen pregnancy rate dropping?”, so “boys” might be a bit simplistic. The causes of teen pregnancy are complex and include a variety of both macro- and micro-level factors, everything from poverty to personality. But I think boys might genuinely be the answer here.

A Few Statistics

As Pew illustrated, the teen pregnancy rate has decreased every year since the late 1950s, with the exception of a small increase during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Way back when, there were 96.3 live births per 1,000 females age 15-19. By 1985, the pregnancy rate had dropped slowly to a little more than 50 births per 1,000 teen girls before peaking at 61.8 in 1990. Since then, it’s fallen more steeply, hitting 40 live births in 2005 and falling to 29.4 in 2012, the last year for which data are available.

Teen boys who become fathers are more likely to end up on public assistance or in jail prior to age 35.

For the record, that’s still north of 400,000 girls age 15-19 giving birth. On average—and there are plenty of exceptions—teen mothers are more likely to need and receive public assistance and are less likely to graduate from high school or obtain their GED, crippling their future earnings. Teen boys who become fathers have the same negative outcomes, and they’re more likely to end up in jail prior to age 35.

The common explanations for the decline in births are broader changes in women’s lives. Specifically, the median age of women’s first marriage has risen from 21 in 1960 to approximately 27 today and there’s been a consistent increase in the percentage of women who attend college. As a result, girls and young women have become more career-oriented and more careful about accidental pregnancy. But that doesn’t really explain the dramatic drops over the last decade; the age of first marriage hasn’t suddenly spiked, nor has college attendance.

Other “obvious” reasons don’t explain the change either. It’s not:

Less sex: According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS), which has surveyed 12,000-15,000 American teens in grades 9-12 every other year since 1991, the percentage of boys and girls who say they’ve had sex has been fairly constant since the mid-1990s. That’s also true for the number of boys and girls who say they’ve had a total of 4 or more sexual partners. Yes, the numbers bounce around by a few percentage points from one year to the next for both of these questions, but they’re bouncing, not dropping (or rising).

Condom use: According to YRBSS data, the percentage of teens who say they used a condom during their last sexual experience increased steadily through the 1990s. It peaked at 63.0% in 2003 and has stayed about the same since then. The raw numbers—based on all teens, not just those who have had sex—show a substantial gap in condom use; rates for girls are 10-15% higher than for boys.

Abstinence: Mandated by Congress in 1995, abstinence-only sex ed curricula have failed to change teen’s sexual behavior. Reviews of the curricula revealed a reliance on broad and inaccurate stereotypes of both boys and girls, an absence of discussion of gay youth, and a variety of factual errors. Shockingly, many states do not require sex ed programs to be factually accurate. Evaluations of the programs revealed that they rarely improved teens’ knowledge of sex or changed their attitudes about having sex. Although rare, they were more likely to increase teens’ sexual activity than decrease it.

There are some things that have changed.

It Takes Two. Most of us know it takes one male and one female, having penetrative vaginal intercourse (PVI), to create a baby. That’s not exactly news. Even though the federal government has been paying for pregnancy prevention programs since at least the 1960s, almost all of that funding focused on girls and women. That started to change in the last decade. Many pregnancy prevention programs now include boys and make them part of the solution. My favorites are Our Whole Lives, created by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, and Wise Guys, created by the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina.

The Safety Generation: Since birth, Millennials have been told, if not forced, to be safe. They’ve been wearing helmets since they started riding tricycles and have always known about designated drivers. Many were told that if they were too drunk to drive—or if their ride was—then their parents would come pick them up, no questions asked. For many of them, safety—in this case, avoiding pregnancy—is routine. And while the percentage who are using condoms hasn’t really changed, there’s reason to believe they’re using them more regularly than past generations, as well as using condoms while also using the pill or the implant. YRBS data indicate that 85-90% of boys say they used at least one type of protection during their last sexual experience, a rate that hasn’t really changed since 1999.

For Millenials, safety—in this case, avoiding pregnancy—is routine.

It’s the Economy, Stupid. The most recent generations have grown up at a time when most of the “good jobs” out there require a college degree. Opportunities for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers to get a job and work their way up have dropped dramatically since the collapse of the US steel industry in the 1970s; the recent bankruptcies of automakers made many more of those jobs go away. Given all the economic challenges, many boys fear the economic yoke that a child would bring. It’s already hard enough.

Masculinity: Despite the claim that the group known as “men” are barely civilized cavemen whose behavior hasn’t changed in billions of years, it’s very clear that our expectations for boys and men have changed. Men are waiting later and later to get married and more of them than ever are attending college. Just as they have always done, boys and men continue to adapt to the culture around them.

I admit this isn’t the most definitive argument, but when all the usual suspects don’t seem to have an impact, it may well be that the explanation often overlooked—boys—is the explanation that matters. Or, to paraphrase Holmes, when you have ruled out all the likely answers, the unlikely must be considered. If providing girls with good sex education as well as broader educational opportunities can explain the long gradual decline in the teen pregnancy rate, then giving boys good sex education and reminding them about their opportunities should have the same effect.

Why then is it so hard to believe teen boys—or at least, a large segment of the male population—is being sexually responsible? Do we really still think that all guys are just roving inseminators whose little head does all the thinking for the big head? Today’s boys deserve more credit than that.

-image from Pew Research Center, derived from National Health Center data.