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, 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.

Sexting: Sex Ed’s Cutting Edge?

How would you feel if your teenage children received sexually explicit sexual text messages?  How would you feel if they received them from the City of New York?

Ruthie Dean recounts her experiences with the new program for Christianity Today.  As part of its aggressive public campaign against teen pregnancy, the City of New York operates a texting service.

Most coverage of this program has focused on the posters.  These posters have emphasized the financial cost of teen pregnancy.  But every poster also includes a number to text in order to find out more.

Image Source: New York City Human Resources Administration

Image Source: New York City Human Resources Administration

Dean tried it.

Dean describes receiving a series of explicit text messages, describing the fictional story of two teenagers who got pregnant accidentally.  The texts ask teens to answer questions about sex and pregnancy, including questions such as “What should you say to a guy if he says: ‘I don’t like wearing a condom’? Text your reply.”

Dean argues that the text approach makes some sense.  If teens will only read texts, then why not send out important sex information that way?  Other critics of the program have focused on the questionable tactic of public shaming as a way to decrease teen pregnancy.  Dean laments the text program itself.  Not only does it seem glitchy—some of Dean’s questions went unanswered—but the notion that the important and sensitive topic of sex can be handled in brief informational bursts seems inhuman and inhumane.

What do conservatives think of this approach to sex ed?  Most conservative commentary has focused on the poster campaign.

Writing in the conservative City Journal, Heather MacDonald called the campaign “gutsy.”  Like the commentators on Fox News, MacDonald applauded Mayor Bloomberg for his willingness to take on the liberal establishment.  Though Planned Parenthood attacked the ads for “stigmatizing” teen pregnancy, MacDonald wrote, the posters only publicized “incontrovertible facts that social science has known for decades but that professors and politicians have not dared inject into the public sphere.”

But what about the texting program?  Conservative pundits might praise the posters for their willingness to offend liberal sentiment.  But do conservatives really approve of sexually explicit text messages sent directly to teen phones?  That does not seem to match the history of conservative opposition to sex ed in America’s public schools.