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How to Put the Chill on Teen Sex

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Back in July, I argued that there is growing evidence that liberals have found a way to preserve traditional families in our modern, disconnected, wealthy society. Now, I'm seeing some evidence that liberals have found another way to out-tradition the traditionalists -- curbing teen sexuality in the face of modern media.

The conservative method of preventing teen sex is to tell teens not to have sex. That seems pretty straightforward, right? There's just one problem with abstinence education -- it doesn't work. This isn't a theory or a statement of my own preferences -- it's just cold, hard fact. And abstinence education may even increase teen pregnancy rates. If what you want is for teens not to have sex, you're going to have to think of a better way to make that happen.

Fortunately, liberals may have found just such a way. According to a recent study in the Journal of School Health, a comprehensive sex-education program called Get Real, developed by Planned Parenthood, managed to cut the number of sexually active eighth-graders by about 15 percent. That may not sound like a huge number, but it's far, far better than abstinence-education programs have managed.

How did Planned Parenthood make progress against the rush of teen hormones? By emphasizing communication. Here's how a report by ThinkProgress describes the technique:

Get Real relies on what's called a "social-emotional learning approach" to teach kids how to navigate relationships, giving them opportunities to practice their communication skills both in the classroom and at home with their parents. According to researchers, that's the key...[T]he study found that the sixth grade boys who completed Get Real's take-home assignments, which have a big emphasis on getting parents involved with the subject material, were more likely to delay sex until after eighth grade. That's because those family activities may help facilitate conversations that parents wouldn't have known how to handle on their own.

The phrase "social-emotional learning approach" will probably have many conservatives gnashing their teeth. But I say it's hard to argue with results. If what you want is to make teens feel bad about the sex they're having, go ahead and use abstinence education. But if what you want is to stop them from having sex, then you should consider Planned Parenthood's type of program. It's that simple.

Stepping back a moment, we might ask ourselves why this finding makes sense. Why would talking to kids about sex be more effective in restraining them than simply telling them not to do it? I see it as a contrast between a health-based approach toward human behavior and a rules-based approach.

Rules-based approaches are as old as time. "Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's house," and so on. I sometimes hear conservatives arguing that while educated, high-IQ coastal elites might be able to use abstract reasoning, the masses need simple, stern rules to hold their impulses in check.

Health-based approaches, however, place more faith in an individual's power to understand his or her own desires and the consequences of his or her own actions, and make reasoned decisions based on that understanding. Where a rules-based approach tells a teen that sex is immoral and bad, a health-based approach asks teens to think about why they want sex, what they would get out of it and what the consequences might be. In other words, a health-based approach tries to get teens to understand some of the reasons their parents don't want them having sex in the first place. A health-based approach trusts teens to understand that having sex might cause them harm.

It's undeniable that rules-based approaches are good in some situations -- training your dog not to poop on the carpet, for example. But we've passed the point where human teenagers can be treated like dogs. There is too much media, too much Internet, too much knowledge. We are never going back to the days when we could cloister teens away from the influence of the wicked world.

That, I am guessing, is why the conservative approach is failing to curb teen sexuality. Conservatives are pointing at sex and yelling "bad," but teens are now informed enough to ask, "Wait, why is it bad?" Abstinence education gives no answer to that question; health-based sex education gives teens an answer, and it's a good one.

This is just one more case where the traditional conservative approach seems hard but brittle, while liberal culture seems flexible but strong. If we want to help working-class Americans stop their families from disintegrating, maybe we should stop using shame and start using a health-based approach. It's hard to argue with results.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net