Why Do We Give Up on Teen Sex?


I recently came across several articles which were based upon a large amount of excellent data that the Center for Disease Control collects annually. Thousands of students in grades 9-12 across the nation self-report the frequency of sexual activity, usage of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and weapons, and the amount of physical activity they undertake. This data is detailed, professionally collected, and sufficient in depth to make valid scientific observations and conclusions, which many writers do in scientific journals each year.

teen sex
Source: Center for Disease Control

Many relationships between various activities are studied, such as the one shown in the graph above comparing academic achievement with participation in risky behaviors. While the CDC states that these statistics do not establish causation (i.e., does poor school performance lead to risky behavior or does risky behavior cause poor school performance), what is clear across the board is that teens who engage in one form of risky behavior typically engage in others. More importantly, the CDC data shows that teens who do not engage in risky behavior are also better students, and much healthier physically, psychologically, and mentally than those who do.

Teen Sex and Public Policy

What most interested me was how we, as a society, treat each of the risky behaviors featured above. We have laws which prohibit teens from using weapons (these do not include hunting rifles used legally) or purchasing tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. Additionally, we use governmental policies and public service announcements to strongly discourage such activity among teens. One frequently sees billboards and public service announcements which show the dangers of smoking, drugs, and alcohol for youth. Similarly, we strongly advocate, again through governmental policy and school programs, against sedentary lifestyles for teens.

For all of the above activities, it is clear that the common theme is “Don’t do it.” With sexual activity, however, the government and public school policies are quite different. Even though the data from the CDC shows that teens who engage in sexual activity are less healthy on all fronts and perform worse in school, there does not seem to be any negativity attached to sexual activity for teen in social media, governmental policy, or public school program.

Rather, the opposite seems true. Instead of supporting abstinence as the goal for teens, most public school programs (see, for example, the most commonly used program) hold that students should be taught “safe sex” and should be provided with “protection kits” to enable them to do so. In addition, contraceptives of all kinds are routinely promoted and provided for teens. Any attempts at abstinence-only programs are defeated before they are even begun because popular culture maintains that “normal kids can’t say no to sex.” The bar is already lowered before they begin.

Our Ludicrous Response

Imagine if, instead of encouraging students not to smoke, we promoted “safe smoking.” Kids, we know you are going to try smoking, so here’s how you do it! And choose filtered cigarettes for safer smoking!

Imagine if, rather than encouraging kids not to drink or do drugs, we promoted “safe highs.” Kids, it’s normal to want to try alcohol and drugs, so let’s show you how to get your buzz on in a safe place. We’ll teach you how to buy from a reputable dealer, and if you want to try heroin, to make sure your needle is clean!

These responses would be ludicrous. Yet this is precisely what we do with teen sex education. Even though we know that kids may try a) alcohol, b) tobacco, c) drugs, or d) sex, we strongly discourage a, b, and c, and shrug our shoulders at d. Why? Is it to justify our own misuse of sex? Is it because it is hard to stand up to Hollywood and the sexual culture?


The bottom line is that premarital sexual activity is not healthy for teens. They are not ready for it emotionally, physically, or mentally, and it causes a wide variety of health problems. It is an adult activity. To settle for less than abstinence as our goal is an irresponsible disservice to our teens.

Kids: You shouldn’t smoke, drink, do drugs, or have sex. Period.

Even though we may not be 100% successful, it’s time to make teen sexual abstinence as our goal, and laud its benefits of a matter of public policy.

What are we afraid of?

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25 thoughts on “Why Do We Give Up on Teen Sex?”

  1. The idea of a “safe high” is not a fantasy. When I was in high school in the 80s, there were a lot of parents who had no problem with kids drinking alcohol at their house as long as they stayed at their house and were not roaming the streets. This was their (demented) view of a “safe high”.

    1. My husband and I knew parents like that. They wanted to be their child’s”friend” and to be “cool” vicariously through their child. Sadly, they didn’t realize that their kids desperately wanted limits and parents who would provide them. We would have large cast parties at our house after our daughters’ high school musicals. Everyone knew that both my husband and I would be present at all times (not hovering, mind you, but always nearby) and there would be lots of pizza, pop, snacks and music, but no booze, and anyone trying to bring anything in would be turned away. The parties were always packed and kids had the best time because they didn’t need to worry about that issue. And when one young man (not from the play) tried to bring in a backpack, my husband offered to store it for him, and he quickly left.
      Kids desperately want their parents to love them enough to stand firm on limits.

  2. Abstinence education does delay teens from starting sexual activity, but not for very long, especially for older teens. (Note that even a small delay statistically leads to a reduced pregnancy rate over the short period of time between the average beginning of sexual activity and HS graduation.)

    The big problem is that abstinence education leaves people with inadequate information for when they do become sexually active.

  3. Pingback: THURSDAY EDITION | Big Pulpit

  4. You would think the teens would be learning from each other. If, among friends and acquaintances child A, B and C screw up their academic, social and dating life because they are having sex, it stands to reason that once the screw up becomes obvious the behavior associated with it becomes a cause and effect. If they can’t put 2 and 2 together after witnessing that what more can you do besides put your graph on giant billboards and hope they can read.

    1. actually, nearly none of the “pedo”priests were pedos, they were and are garden-variety fags, perverts who go after younger same sex victims.

    2. Correlation is not causation.

      I remember when I was young, the kids who were having sex at the youngest ages tended to already have screwed up lives.

  5. Whatever schools have been doing recently, it’s working. Teenagers are having less sex (and less pregnancies) than a generation ago.

    1. Almost too obvious to need saying.

      Also too obvious to need saying: People having happy sex lives (even married) have always been shut out of formulating Catholic teaching on sex. It was all promulgated by celibate males, who never had a sex life (or at least not a happy one). The average 20-year-old, on her fourth lover, already knows more about sex, and its role in a relationship, than does the average 60-year-old bishop.

    2. On your principles, there is much of what Our Lord Jesus Christ taught that we should reject. At least on this Catholic site, most who read here -and all who write here- accept what of Jesus’s teaching you would reject. I have never had an abortion, but I can speak and teach correctly about it and its horrors and its evils; and I can tell anyone what the Catholic Church’s teachings are on abortion. Guy McClung, San Antonio TX

    3. Because you are clueless about the Catholic faith. Laughably clueless, and that’s really the only thing you’ve been able to prove.

    4. Weeelll….I guess it’s over for those who speak out against pedophilia without having tried it…(!) That’s the conclusion from this logic of yours, isn’t it? Sorry, but the moral law doesn’t require that we have tried every evil thing before we condemn it!

    5. Exactly, so by your logic, then, only a Catholic priest PEDOPHILE can judge whether or not the act is immoral, because he has engaged in it, whereas another who has not engaged in it is not qualified to judge. Have you had enough of how stupid you sound? Or maybe keep commenting….

    6. I suggest the possibility that you are unaware of how Catholic doctrine actually develops. It is not primarily done in boardrooms, where a range of options are voted on. There is an element of this in Ecumenical Councils, but that is the very end of the process and usually only happens when there has been a serious dispute on a contentious issue, which historically have almost all been non-moral at the conciliar level (where are the anathemas on murder, for instance? no need…). The primary source of doctrine is the teaching of Christ and the apostles. The grace of Holy Orders provides the charism of authentically interpreting and unpacking that teaching, in communion with the Successor of St. Peter who guarantees the protection of that teaching through the action of the Holy Spirit.

      The challenge fails in other ways. There have been loads of married persons “contribute” to the expression and defense of Catholic doctrine on this point. Just as well, you have folks like St. Augustine, who was sleeping around before he shaped up and then provided a massive amount of work in this area. Additionally, it is just erroneous to imagine that there is THAT unique of a perspective that married persons bring to the actual moral discussion – everyone knows basically how it works. Besides, what do you think one of the things Father hears about most in confession…? But if that’s still not enough, consider how many professional sports coaches are or were pros in that sport themselves. Almost none! Yet they are still qualified to coach, no?

    7. Well . . . just to take one example, I don’t think a married couple with a happy sex life would say that tender loving oral sex to orgasm is “shameful and intrinsically vicious” (Humanae Vitae).

    8. You beg the question by appealing to the qualifiers “happy” and “loving.” I know scores of couples who I call happy and married who would agree that that is extremely shameful and intrinsically vicious and in fact predicate happiness in part on NOT indulging in such vice, a vice which they would agree is completely opposed to love.

  6. If your comment about “Don’t……” is addressed to children or young adults. it’s a fail. Nancy Reagan’s message of “ust say no!” was a fail.All data on curriculum which focus which focus on abstaining show high failure rates or no effect. Forget religion. clergy never speak to those issues.
    The issue arises as a function of famiity. Kids learn from mom or dad or whoever is there and today parents set a poor example (generally). Look at the structure and the activity of the majority of the American family and you will find who needs education. Kids continue and learn patterns of behavior at home….therein the fault lies.

    1. When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, that year’s HS graduating class self-reported that 65% of them had used drugs and 37% were regular drug users. Eight years later, when Reagan left office, 19.7% were regular drug users, a 47% decline:


      As for any use of illegal drugs reported in the past year, as reported by a 2001 University of Michigan study, the 1980s showed a steep decline in drug use among high school seniors, only to see a rebound in the 1990s:


      While “Just Say No” is most certainly not primarily responsible for this rather dramatic reduction in regular drug use, to label it a failure ignores the fact that, in the face of pretty high usage numbers in the early 1980s, by the late 1980s, drug use among young people, especially regular drug use, had significantly declined. And in the 1990s, we saw an increase in drug use among high school seniors.

      You are right to say that the most significant effect, whether with respect to drug use or sexual activity among the young, is most likely from the family. But other messages, including broader cultural messages, such as Mrs. Reagan’s with respect to drug use, most likely have some significant benefit too.

    2. I think John Belushi and Len Bias had more to do with the reduction in drug use among young people in the 1980s than Ronald Reagan.

    3. It’s nice you think that but that isn’t data. There were plenty of famous drug overdoses before the 80’s and they had no sudden impact. AIDS came on the scene, and may have played a pretty big part, but to say anti-drug efforts like “just say no” do nothing is to ignore the huge success of anti-smoking campaigns and legislation.
      (The same for drunk driver campaigns)

      It worked for smoking, but it would never work for drugs or sexual activity…..yeah right. It is more a matter that society’s tolerance of sexual activity has expanded.
      We no longer see the immorality of sexual promiscuity, instead it is immoral to smoke and to be overweight and not exercise and to drink and drive.

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