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Source: Guas/Shutterstock

by Stefanie Mollborn, Ph.D.

Many U.S. teens engage in risky sexual behaviors, making our teen pregnancy, abortion, birth, and sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates unusually high. The information and cultural messages teens hear about sex and pregnancy play an important part. But what messages are teens hearing, and how are they responding? These questions are the focus of my new book, Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy.

My research team interviewed young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and communities, focusing on college students and teen parents and asking them about messages related to sex and pregnancy they heard during high school. Our participants described a complicated social world filled with strict rules, inconsistencies, silence, gossip, control by adults, and pushback from teens.

Teens are hearing mixed messages that are combined with a lack of support from adults. Our participants talked about hearing strong opinions against teen sex and pregnancy from parents and other adults, but these opinions were rarely backed up with much concrete information or support to help teens conform to them. Our participant "Isaac" (all names are pseudonyms) said that parents in his community told teens, “Don’t get pregnant. I don’t care how you do it. I’m not going to give you condoms. You’re not supposed to get pregnant when you’re seventeen.” Parents often threatened severe consequences if teens broke their rules, all the while not usually providing contraception or concrete advice about how to successfully navigate a romantic relationship or potential sexual situation. Many young people reported feeling scared, powerless, and unsupported.

An important part of this climate around teen sex and pregnancy are the conspiracies of silence that teens, parents, and other people engage in. Because the rules against teen sex and pregnancy are usually strict and the threatened punishments for breaking them so severe, teens and the people who care about them are motivated to turn a blind eye to any rule violations. In nearly all families, this meant avoiding what Veronica called the “me having sex talk.” To accomplish this, both parents and teens sidestepped the topics of sex and pregnancy or talked hypothetically about them. This strategy kept many teens from getting concrete advice about their relationships and behaviors, accessing contraception, and talking to an adult about whether they are ready for sex.

Teens’ friends aren’t able to provide the support teens need, and they often present a real danger to teens. But this danger usually isn’t what we might expect. Most friendship groups are not pressuring each other to have sex or get pregnant. Instead, peers are dangerous because they are relying on each other for information and practical support that they aren’t really able to provide. This can lead to misinformation and bad decisions. Peers are also dangerous because they socially exclude each other in hurtful ways based on rumors and innuendo that are often not true. Because high school students are stuck spending all day with their peers, the threat of social exclusion makes the world of friends and peers a risky place for teens. Participants told stories of people yelling “Baby killer!” in the school hallway to a girl who, it was rumored, had an abortion; pregnant girls dropping out of school because of poor treatment from students and teachers; and sexually assaulted girls being made laughingstocks. Close friends were often supportive, but the wider circle of peers represented a threatening and powerful arena of social judgment in which unfounded rumors were enough to condemn a teen.

Finally, I found that the messages your teen hears depends a lot on the local community. There were striking differences in the messages U.S. teens hear about sex and pregnancy. In some less religious communities, abortion was begrudgingly tolerated as what Claudia called “the easiest, cleanest, most discreet thing.” In some more religious places, abortion was such a grave sin that some people praised teen mothers for having chosen not to have one. Teens in wealthier communities heard strong messages about not messing up their bright futures, and the implicit promise of money for college may have encouraged them to refrain from sex or to contracept very consistently. In all communities, though, teens were told that sex is a bad idea, yet many of them became sexually active anyway, often not using contraception carefully and sometimes ending up pregnant. This suggests that our cultural messages aren’t working the way we would like them to.

What can parents and other adults do to help remedy this situation? I argue that it is important to communicate openly with teens and empower them to make their own thoughtful, mature, and ethical decisions. Their decisions can be better if they get support and information from people they trust. Then hold them to high standards regardless of their sexual decisions. If, like most teens, your teen becomes sexually active at some point, help him make sure that decisions don’t threaten his future or compromise his own ethics or his relationships with family members and friends. Paradoxically, by making teens feel less scared, powerless, and unsupported, we may be able to gain more leverage over their behavior and reduce the risks they face.

Stefanie Mollborn is an Associate Professor in Sociology and the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

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