Sex can cause pregnancy: Many teens unclear on the concept. Why?

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The headline arrived like a thunderbolt: The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country in the world, according to data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even more shocking? Nearly a third of those teens who weren’t using contraception and became pregnant -- 31.4% -- said that they didn’t think they could get pregnant at the time, the study found. And 8% thought that either they or their partner were sterile. The survey of teen girls did not ask why the pregnant teens were under those ‘misconceptions’ (the researchers’ word, not ours).


So we asked a sexpert and a teen pregnancy expert for their thoughts on why so many teens engage in such magical thinking about sex.

‘We have lousy sex education. Period, end of story,’ sex advice columnist Dan Savage told The Times. He said he routinely gets letters from readers who believe all sorts of myths and legends about sex -- that no one gets pregnant the first time she has sex, that drinking a cap full of bleach after sex will prevent pregnancy, that taking a hot shower after sex will prevent pregnancy....

‘It’s enough to make you want to put your head down on the desk and cry,’ he said. ‘We know what works -- comprehensive sex education, access to birth control... But we can’t do it’ because of a segment of society that equates sexual ignorance with sexual purity and good morals.

The researchers themselves write:

‘These findings have several implications. First, rates of contraceptive use among sexually active teens might be improved by providing appropriate access to contraception, encouraging consistent use of more effective contraceptives, promoting condom use for protection against sexually transmitted infections including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and increasing teens’ motivation to use contraception consistently.’

Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, put it this way: ‘At the end of the day, the only teens who are getting pregnant are those who are not using contraceptive consistently, carefully or at all,’ he said. ‘It underscores how much misperceptions, myths, magical thinking and real ambivalence put teens at risk.

‘When you ask teens, do you know what you need to know about preventing unplanned pregnancy, they say ‘yes.’... But there is a disconnect between what teens think they know and what they actually know.’


He said that sex education needs to ‘go beyond the birds and the bees’ into understanding how a healthy relationship works -- and empower young people to say ‘no’ at certain points. As in teaching teens to say: ‘Sex without a condom is a nonstarter for me.’

But Albert stressed that the overall picture is not as gloomy as the study might suggest. Overall, teen pregnancy is down, he said. ‘Most teens are getting it -- they are either delaying sex or using contraceptives more consistently or effectively.’

Our sister blog, Booster Shots, explains how the raging battles over how to best prevent teen pregnancy might be part of the problem.

Suddenly, the fact that TLC’s ‘I didn’t know I was pregnant’ made it through Season 4 doesn’t seem so ludicrous.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch