Recently, the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released a huge study about teenage sexual activity, contraceptive use and childbearing trends between 2006-2008. The National Survey of Family Growth covers a vast amount of information related to sexual and reproductive health and relies on interviews of men and women between ages of 15 and 44. On March 3, 2011, the Washington Post published an article highlighting this study’s finding that in recent years the number of American teenagers and young adults engaging in sexual contact has declined. (The link to the news story is at the end of this article). I was skeptical about the statistics, so I hunted down the CDC’s official report to learn more about who was surveyed, how big the study was and what sorts of methods were used.
After digging, I found some surprising truths. Apparently, the people who wrote this Washington Post article took some liberties with their data interpretation. They emphasized the idea that teens are “doing it less,” interviewing high-schoolers who said they are too busy and too invested in their future to have sex. The commentary’s tone implied that teenagers are behaving more responsibly, foreseeing the consequences of their actions, and responding well to sex education that emphasizes abstinence.
Now, it is very possible that these assertions are true in some cases. It is likely that there are plenty of teenagers who are engaging in important, fulfilling extra-curriculars instead of having sex. I will be the first to admit that I was one of these teenagers; though not necessarily out of choice. However, there are also many, many teenagers who this sweeping statement ignores. According to the actual CDC report, “In 2006–2008, the proportion of never-married females aged 15–19 who had ever had sexual intercourse was 42 percent. This was not a statistically significant change from 2002.” (Vital and Health Statistics, 2010). In fact, the study clarified that the small decline (4 percentage points) is actually due to improvements in data collection over the years – not behavioral changes in society, meaning that the Washington Post article took a big leap to their conclusion.
"Okay, Hannah," you may be saying while rolling your eyes. "Spinning statistics is how some journalists make a living. What’s your point?"
The point is that when it comes to reproductive and sexual health, we cannot afford to toss around assumptions about behavior trends, especially when they imply that our country is headed in the right direction. We are in the midst of one of the most dangerous assaults on women’s health in nearly half a century. By allowing journalists to doctor numbers or accentuate whatever results will make good stories, we are enabling our nation’s apathy, and permitting conservative policy-makers to strip us of our rights and voices.
I want to emphasize again, that as concerned and empowered citizens, it is our responsibility to question the mainstream media, our political leaders and the facts behind sweeping statements. Whether it pertains to cohabitation or collective bargaining rights, in order to protect our own health, liberties and livelihoods we must be discerning in our pursuit of information.
Therefore, I hope that you question what I have written here. As always, I welcome feedback, corrections, questions and outrage. Please stay tuned for future articles that will break down some findings of the National Survey of Family Growth that were not celebrated by mainstream media, but certainly deserve some attention.
Stobbe, Mike & Johnson, Carla K. “US Teens, Young Adults, ‘Doing It’ Less, Study Says”. The Washington Post. Thursday, March 3rd, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/03/AR2011030302664.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008.” Data From the National Survey of Family Growth. Division of Vital Statistics: Series 23, Number 30. March 2011. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_030.pdf