Adults never grow tired of attacking and blaming youth. According to Mike Males’ recent book, Teenage Sex and Pregnancy (2010) Peter the Hermit complained back in 1247 that “young people of today are forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behavior and dress.” Today we have liberals and conservatives alike (though for sometimes different reasons) attacking youth, especially teen girls. In Reviving Ophelia (1998), psychologist Mary Pipher panicked over an epidemic of eating disorders, phobias and depression. Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes (2002) claimed that girls were confused, insecure, obnoxious, cruel and catty.
One of the most popular screeds against teen girls is that they are irresponsible, impulsive and take dangerous risks, resulting in high rates of pregnancy, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This also happens to be patently false, not just historically, but also compared with adult women. Pregnancy rates, rape, STDs, drug use and crime have all been plummeting for teens over the past decade, while they have been soaring for middle aged women. For example, the birth rate declined by 57% between 1995 and 2007 for girls under the age of 15 and 29% for 15-19 year-old girls. Even young women in their early 20s are having fewer babies. However, women over 40 have seen a 70% increase in births, while those in the 35-39 range saw a 50% increase. (Source: CDC WONDER—2009; cited in Males, 2010)
Another example is rape victimization. Between 1973 and 2007 there was a 37% drop in rapes of females between the ages of 12 and 24, and a 68% decline in other sexual assaults (from the Bureau of Justice Statistics; cited in Males, 2010). Likewise, HIV infection for 13-19 year-olds dropped 28% between 1993 and 2007, and 49% for 20-24 year-olds. However, for 40-44 year olds it increased 19% and for 45-49 year-olds, it went up 67%.This runs counter to the claim that teens are having more dangerous or pathological sex. Many, no doubt, are being more careful and learning how to fend off the unwanted attention of family members and neighbors.
In a seeming paradox today’s youth reports having more sex, and at a younger age, than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In 1970, only 5% of 15 year-old girls reported having had sex at least once and only 29% of all girls age 15-19 reported having had sex at least once. Today, the numbers are 25% for 15 year-olds and 50% for 15-19 year-olds (See Males, 2010, p99). If these self-reporting numbers are true, girls are indeed more promiscuous, but also far more responsible, too. They are having safer sex and they are having fewer pregnancies and STDS, despite having more sex.
It is interesting to consider that while teen birth rates have declined, contrary to the claims of the protectors of youth, overall infant and maternal health have not improved accordingly. Males notes that from 1995 to 2006, the number of low birth weight babies being born to U.S. women jumped by 23%, while the total percentage of all babies that are born with low birth weights increased from 7.3% to 8.3%. However, this increase is due primarily to the increasing age of mothers. The teens have done much of what the pundits and culture warriors have demanded: they are having fewer babies, doing less drugs, and committing fewer crimes. Women who delay child bearing until they are in their late 30s or early 40s, in contrast, are seeing increasing rates of autism, low birth weights, and negative health outcomes for themselves and their babies.