29 October 2008

Social Conservative Don't Mind Teen Pregnancies

Margaret Talbot writing for the The New Yorker has captured a key attitude difference between cultural liberals and cultural conservatives in the United States regarding teen pregnancy, in her article datelined November 3, 2008 titled "Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?"

The bottom line:

Social liberals in the country’s “blue states” tend to support sex education and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teen-agers have sex before marriage, but would regard a teen-age daughter’s pregnancy as devastating news. And the social conservatives in “red states” generally advocate abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively unruffled if a teen-ager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn’t choose to have an abortion.

The detail:

The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents—seventy-four per cent—say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. (Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence.) Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them. (Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment.) But . . . evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their “sexual d├ębut”—to use the festive term of social-science researchers—shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier. . . . evangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception. . .

Nationwide, according to a 2001 estimate, some two and a half million people have taken a pledge to remain celibate until marriage. . . . More than half of those who take such pledges—which, unlike abstinence-only classes in public schools, are explicitly Christian—end up having sex before marriage, and not usually with their future spouse. . . . pledgers delay sex eighteen months longer than non-pledgers, and have fewer partners. Yet . . . communities with high rates of pledging also have high rates of S.T.D.s. . . .

Among blue-state social liberals, commitment to the institution of marriage tends to be unspoken or discreet, but marriage in practice typically works pretty well. . . .“red families” and “blue families” are “living different lives, with different moral imperatives.” . . . people start families earlier in red states—in part because they are more inclined to deal with an unplanned pregnancy by marrying rather than by seeking an abortion.

Of all variables, the age at marriage may be the pivotal difference between red and blue families. The five states with the lowest median age at marriage are Utah, Oklahoma, Idaho, Arkansas, and Kentucky, all red states, while those with the highest are all blue: Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The red-state model puts couples at greater risk for divorce; women who marry before their mid-twenties are significantly more likely to divorce than those who marry later. And younger couples are more likely to be contending with two of the biggest stressors on a marriage: financial struggles and the birth of a baby before, or soon after, the wedding.

Celibacy pledges work poorly if more than 30% of teens in an area take them. The sense of being a special minority is key to their success.

"Solidly middle- or upper-middle-class adolescents have considerable socioeconomic and educational expectations" which cause them to place a greater premium on postponing parenting. Researchers have suggested that if evangelicals are serious about chastity before marriage, that evangelicals need to do more to support young married couples, or their communities will suffer the downsides of young marriages.

Near the close of the piece, Talbot states:

Evangelicals are very good at articulating their sexual ideals, but they have little practical advice for their young followers. Social liberals, meanwhile, are not very good at articulating values on marriage and teen sexuality—indeed, they may feel that it’s unseemly or judgmental to do so. But in fact the new middle-class morality is squarely pro-family. Maybe these choices weren’t originally about values—maybe they were about maximizing education and careers—yet the result is a more stable family system. Not only do couples who marry later stay married longer; children born to older couples fare better on a variety of measures, including educational attainment, regardless of their parents’ economic circumstances. The new middle-class culture of intensive parenting has ridiculous aspects, but it’s pretty successful at turning out productive, emotionally resilient young adults. And its intensity may be one reason that teen-agers from close families see child-rearing as a project for which they’re not yet ready. For too long, the conventional wisdom has been that social conservatives are the upholders of family values, whereas liberals are the proponents of a polymorphous selfishness. This isn’t true, and, every once in a while, liberals might point that out.

I can imagine a conservative rebuttal that argues that if only more people went to church, porn was hard to get, God was recognized as a force in civil society, if fault based marriage remained on the books, if homosexuality wasn't tolerated in a way that undermined traditional values, and liberals stood by them on chasity because contraception and abortion wasn't available, that their approach would work. The evidence that this is true is doubtful, but more importantly, it simply is not going to happen. Not in five years, not in twenty-five years.

Social liberals would be happy to promote greater support for young families. They do believe in marriage and family. But, they aren't ready to emulate what they see as a failed red state value system.


Michael Malak said...

Besides all of the usual considerations you've mentioned, here is another that is close to my heart: the extension of childhood, which has two effects:

1. The youthful marriages that you disparage wouldn't be so fragile if the wage earner(s) had sufficient work experience to earn sufficient wages. This would be done by recompressing the educational system to what it was in the 19th century: an eighth-grade education then is comparable to a high school diploma today; a high school diploma then is comporable to a college degree today; a college degree then is comparable to a graduate degree today.

2. With extended childhood, marriage with sufficient financial means does not become possible until the late 20's or later, which is a long time to wait with raging hormones and oversexualized media. Returning to a normal-length childhood would make abstinence a much more serious proposition.

John Taylor Gatto has written and talked about this frequently. See for example the last two paragraphs of the section "School as Religion" from the Prologue of his book "The Underground History of American Education."


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

More analysis here from July 2007 at Real Clear Politics.

Some highlights:

"When the statistics on teen sexuality are controlled for social and economic factors, conservative Protestant teens first have sex at about the same time as their peers -- the average is midway through their 16th year. That is hardly comforting to conservative Protestant parents, who would expect more bang for the bucks they spend funding Sunday schools -- well, actually, less bang.

But these numbers shift when controlled for religious intensity. For those who attend church often, sexual activity is delayed until nearly 17, while nominal evangelicals begin at 16.2 years, earlier than the national average. . . .

Only 1 percent of conservative Protestants who attend church weekly cohabit, compared to 10 percent of all adults. (On this statistic, nominal evangelicals almost exactly mirror the nation.) Twelve percent of churchgoing evangelicals have children out of wedlock, compared to 33 percent of all mothers. . . .

[E]conomic and cultural factors matter greatly, sometimes more than individual belief. Teens with good life prospects and a strong sense of the future -- kids with economic and educational ambitions -- tend to avoid risky behavior such as drugs and early sex. Without those prospects, the temptation is strong to live for the moment."