Red Sex, Blue Sex, Bad Sex, Good Sex*

A recent article in the New Yorker by Margaret Talbot examines the divide in America between conservative evangelical communities that condemn premarital sex while accepting teen pregnancy, and more socially liberal couples that accept teen sex, but would be dismayed by their teen daughters’ pregnancies; and the effects that these beliefs are having on modern teenagers.
A lot of what is discussed, we already know: religious belief and abstinence don’t always go together; evangelical teens who sign virginity pledges do not necessarily keep them; abstinence-only education does not lead to lower pregnancy rates—but it does lead to serious misinformation about birth control; young marriages spurred by accidental pregnancy aren’t known for their longevity; and teens everywhere, regardless of race, creed or background, are asking questions about sex.
But not necessarily getting answers, at least not honest ones.  The article addresses the fact that many “red state” teens believe the abstinence movement’s claim that condoms don’t protect against HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, but the scope of teen confusion about sexual issues is actually much broader.  A recent study by L.L. Wynn, Angel M. Foster and James Trussell showed that an alarming number of people, (not necessarily only those who’ve received abstinence-only education) who e-mailed questions to the Emergency Contraception (EC) website “” were ignorant of some of the most basic aspects of sex, such as what activities could and could not lead to pregnancy, when one could get pregnant and how hormonal birth control, including EC, worked.  The study identified some of the ways that U.S. policy and health practices are inculcating teens with misinformation around sex; some subtle (i.e., the fact that Catholic hospitals that adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services are required to administer pregnancy tests to rape victims before offering them EC, thus inaccurately suggesting that EC could interfere with an established pregnancy) and not-so-subtle (i.e., abstinence-only education—need we say more?).  When the U.S. government is subsidizing programs that teach incomplete or misleading information about sex and condoning unnecessary and inappropriate public health practices, it’s unsurprising that teens are left confused about their bodies, sex, and how best to protect themselves.

The Talbot article also addresses the new “middle-class morality.”  According to Mark Regnerus, author of “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers,” there’s a growing population of upper- and middle-class teenagers who are accepting of premarital sex, as well as contraception and abortion, but too concerned about their futures to pursue it without serious forethought and preparation.  He writes: “They perceive a bright future for themselves, one with college, advanced degrees, a career, and a family.  Simply put, too much seems at stake. Sexual intercourse is not worth the risks.”
In other words, these socially liberal, economically privileged teen girls are being told—perhaps unlike their more conservative sisters—that their futures hold more for them than motherhood and marriage. The consequences of unprotected sex could seriously derail their plans, as opposed to those young women who assume that teen pregnancy is merely accelerating the inevitable.
But it’s troubling that, as Regnerus says, these teens think that unprotected sex is, “…not just unwise anymore; it’s wrong.”  Where does this put the upper- or middle-class girl who gets pregnant?  After all, no form of birth control is 100 percent effective, and sometimes…stuff happens.  Abortion is an important option for women facing unintended pregnancies, but often still carries a stigma (though Regnerus does point out that these communities tend to be accepting of abortion).  And while the young woman who chooses to become a teen mother may not be condemned by her peers for engaging in premarital sex per se, she may be looked down on for getting pregnant, for being stupid, for “ruining her future.”  Is this judgment really any better?
Obviously sexuality is complicated, being a teenager is complicated, and the combination of the two can seem downright confounding.  But if anything, Talbot’s article brings home the fact that there are more than two sides to this issue; it is not just red versus blue, religious versus secular, good virgins versus promiscuous bad girls.  While the abstinence movement should realize that a sense of possibility may guide teens’ sexual decisions more than misinformation or fear, all sides need to see that judgment of either sexual activity or the consequences, as opposed to tolerance of different life choices, is ultimately harmful to young women.
*(Though the essay references “red” sex and “blue” sex, we aren’t talking about Democrats and Republicans here.  The main distinction is between social conservatives and social liberals; proponents of abstinence-only education and those who support comprehensive sex ed.  Party affiliation is, if anything, an afterthought.)