It is probably fair to say that many religious people are obsessed with controlling sexuality (1). In particular, they are concerned with imposing rules of acceptable sexual conduct. So can parents protect their teenage daughters against unwanted pregnancy by promoting religion in the home?
Given that most religious communities are strongly opposed to extramarital sexuality, one might assume that membership in a religious community would protect teenage women against sexual intercourse and unwanted pregnancy.
So what could possibly go wrong? Plenty it seems. To begin with, just because religious people endorse restrictive views on sexual behavior – popularly known as “family values” – it does not mean that they are going to live up to them.
Religious people do not always live up to their family values
They may do the opposite. There is a surprising amount of evidence that religious conservatives may be over represented in the ranks of those who prefer kinky sexual behavior (2). Much of this is anecdotal. For example, there is a long string of well-known conservative politicians and preachers whose penchant for casual sex undercut their public pronouncements on the issue. Politician Larry Craig is the poster person for such scandals. (Of course, liberal politicians have had their share of sex scandals as well).
Various scientific studies find that religious people are apt to be involved in recreational sex. A pioneering study of sex between men in public restrooms identified many of the participants as religious conservatives (2). Residents of religiously conservative states also spend more on online pornography (3).
Just because people reject extramarital sex in principle, it does not mean that they turn down sexual opportunities in practice. So there is no reason to suppose that teens living in more religious states would be protected against unwanted pregnancies.
Indeed, the scientific evidence is in the opposite direction. More religious states have much higher teen birth rates and this is true even with income level and abortion rates statistically controlled (4).
Stated religious views on sexuality are clearly inconsistent with actual conduct. Researchers believe that efforts to repress sexual behavior can facilitate the opposite outcomes, including sexual obsessions and impulsive sexual activity (3).
Religious intolerance of teenage sexuality can have undesirable consequences for teen birth rates. One problem is that sex education tends to be patchy and inadequate. If teens scarcely know how they might become pregnant, it is difficult for them to protect themselves.
One of the biggest lapses in sex education involves insufficient instruction on contraceptive techniques. So when sexual intercourse begins, young women from religious families are less likely to be using contraception (4).
How to reduce teen pregnancy
Almost everyone agrees that teenage childbearing is harmful to young women – and to their offspring – in terms of lost career opportunities, earning capacity, education, health, and a variety of other outcomes, including risk of criminal offending.
Prevention is not a simple matter but it is not rocket science either. It is no accident that some of the most effective programs are conducted in secular countries such as Sweden where teen births are extremely low compared to the U.S. (5).
Sweden’s success has a number of factors (5) including:
1. Extensive sex education in public schools with a focus on responsibility.
2. Ready availability of contraceptives.
3. Virtual elimination of child poverty that is important because young women are primed to succeed in careers and consequently less interested in early motherhood.
Conversely, the high teen birth rates in poor states in the U.S. reflect childhood poverty, poor sex education, and hostility to birth control.
Given that religious conservatives oppose adequate sex education and birth control for teens, religion is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book.
2. Humphreys, Laud (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Chicago, Aldine..
3. Edelman, Benjamin (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209-220.
4. Strayhorn, J. M., and Strayhorn, J. C. (2009). Religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States. Reproductive Health, 6, 14-19.
5. Barber, N. (2008). The myth of culture: Why we need a genuine natural science of societies (pp. 92-96). Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.