Sad Sex Ed

Want to keep young people from having sex?  Then make them watch what happens to girls who have babies.  Instead of purity campaigns or bland information sessions, perhaps a relentless display of sex, drugs, ‘n’ rock & roll might do the trick.

Economists Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College recently published the results of their study of MTV and teen pregnancy.  I’m too cheap to buy the paper, but it seems they found a 5.7% reduction in teen pregnancy among girls who watched MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom shows.  Also interesting, it appears that viewers of the shows became more avid consumers of health information about birth control and abortion.

Now, this is obviously not the sort of moral sex ed many conservative school activists prefer.  For many social conservatives, the idea of sex ed as an information service to allow safe and pregnancy-free sex for teens is abhorrent.  Real sex ed, for many conservatives, would mean teaching young people to learn about the morality of carnality.  As Rich Lowry concluded in the pages of National Review, these MTV shows still elevate some of their teen moms to “the tawdry satisfactions of minor celebrityhood.”

More important, this study does not suggest that teen viewers behaved any more morally after watching the show.  But from a public-health perspective, the relentless unpleasantness of life for the show’s teen moms seems to discourage a significant number of teens from following in their footsteps.

And some public-health sex ed advocates are celebrating.  According to Boston.com, Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, called the study a confirmation of the information approach.  “One of the nation’s great success stories,” Brown said in a public statement,

has been the historic declines in teen pregnancy. MTV and other media outlets have undoubtedly increased attention to the risks and reality of teen pregnancy and parenthood and, as this research shows, have likely played a role in the nation’s remarkable progress.

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