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Christianity, current events, Religion

Religion and Sex… Again

It’s hardly shocking, but I guess I need to point out that yet another study has linked religious anti-sex nuttery to increased teenage pregnancy.


The results are limited in some significant ways.  First, the data was gathered by state.  The results of a 2007 Pew survey of religious attitudes was compared to information from the CDC on teen pregnancy and abortion.   Since the results are statewide, and not correlated to specific individuals, it is impossible from this data alone to say that religious attitudes cause more teen pregnancy.

Second, race was not factored into the data, either.  This could be significant because African American women are known to under-report both pregnancy and abortion.  Finally, people in conservative religious states tend to get married earlier, which could increase teen pregnancy by legitimizing unprotected sex — since they’re married now.

Anyway, with all the caveats out of the way, here’s what the study shows, and what has sparked all the controversy over cause:  States with high levels of religious conservativism have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.

The study itself does not assert causation, which is a good thing.  John Strayhorn, the author of the study, says this:  “We conjecture that religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself.”

I’m not really sure how I feel about this explanation.  I grew up in precisely the same culture this study has isolated.  Perhaps things have changed since I was a teen, but I don’t remember a lot of lectures discouraging contraception.  Instead, I was constantly warned of the dreadful wrath of God which I would invoke if I had any sort of sex, protected or not.

I can see how this could indirectly discourage contraception, though.  None of the teenagers in my youth groups ever carried condoms, and none of the girls were on the pill.  If any of their mothers or fathers had found out they had birth control, they’d have gotten grounded for a year.  (I’m not kidding.)

The upshot of this is that whenever any of them did get a little too frisky at the end of a date, there was no contraception handy.  Teens are not notoriously good at the withdrawal method, which is itself notoriously unreliable, so most of the teens I knew who had sex got pregnant.  (Think about it.  Women are most horny when they’re ovulating, so it makes sense that they’d ditch their religious training when they’re most fertile.)

So maybe Strayhorn is right, albeit indirectly.  In my experience with different denominations, which is considerable, I’ve found that Catholics are the most nutty about contraceptive use.  Most of the states that top the teen pregnancy list are dominated by Protestant and “Non-Denominational” evangelical born agains.

Amy Adamczyk, a sociologist from New York, has another suggestion.  “Are there just a couple of really precocious religious teenagers who are running around and getting pregnant and having all of these babies, but that’s not the norm?”  To be honest, I find this suggestion kind of amusing, but it’s worth thinking about.  The Quiverfull Movement has taken hold rather firmly in some communities, and it stands to reason that they’d encourage teens to get married and get to popping out new Warriors For Jesus as soon as possible.  My guess, however, is that this movement and others like it are still too small to be causing such a widespread effect in so many states.

Strayhorn tossed his own conceptual monkey wrench into the gears:  “It is possible that an anti-contraception attitude could be caused by religious cultures and that could exert its effect mainly on the non-religious individuals in the culture.  We don’t know.”  I think this possibility misses the mark, though.  Again, unless things have changed drastically in the last decade, southern evangelicals don’t preach against contraception.  They preach against sex.  I suppose it’s possible that the nonreligious could be as afraid of carrying contraception as their religious counterparts, but I’m finding it very difficult to come up with a plausible reason why they would be.  Basically, I think the contraception angle just misses the mark.

There’s a lot of conflicting data out there regarding religiosity, teens, and sex.  I’m very interested in seeing some of the fog lift as more specific research is done.  Regardless of what’s at the bottom of this phenomenon, I think it’s safe to say this: There’s a big problem with teen pregnancy, and conservative religiosity is not helping.



10 thoughts on “Religion and Sex… Again

  1. I do recall citing a study on the boards that showed that people who recieved abstenence only education (religious) had the same frequency of contraceptives than those that did not, I’ll try to dig it up.

    Posted by Alison | September 21, 2009, 12:20 am
  2. Found it

    Unprotected Sex. Program and control group youth did not differ in their rates of
    unprotected sex, either at first intercourse or over the last 12 months. Over the last
    12 months, 23 percent of both groups reported having had sex and always using a condom;
    17 percent of both groups reported having had sex and only sometimes using a condom; and
    4 percent of both groups reported having had sex and never using a condom (Figure 2).

    Eight percent of all control group youth and seven percent of all program group youth
    reported having had sexual intercourse and not using a condom the first time (Figure IV.2).
    There are similarly no differences when measured over the last 12 months—17 percent of
    youth in both groups reported having had sex in the last 12 months and using a condom
    only sometimes, and 4 percent reported having had sex in the last 12 months and never
    using a condom. (Figure IV.3). For all youth, this latter result is equivalent to about half of

    Posted by Alison | September 22, 2009, 11:39 am
  3. How very interesting…

    I really only have one objection to applying this study to the article I mentioned. The subjects for this study were taken from four states — Florida, Mississippi, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Mississippi ranked first in both religiousness and teen pregnancy, but Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia were all in the middle of the pack on both criteria.

    What I noticed in skimming is that the Teens in Control program — the one in Mississippi — was the least effective program in most categories when they did break it down by program. Is this because the program itself was sup-bar? Was it because of the religiousness of the participants? The high rates of poverty in Mississippi? I dunno.

    In any case, I think it’s pretty telling that religiously inspired training, which is essentially what abstinence only training is, has no appreciable effect on teens’ use of contraceptives or apparently their sexual behavior either. So… why are they having more babies?

    Is it because of the religious prohibition on abortion? Perhaps non-religious states have a higher percentage of teens who don’t report abortions? Maybe the religious training on abortion does have an impact. It’s one thing to have sex behind your parents’ back, but once you’re pregnant, it’s harder to hide, and maybe teens in religious states feel more guilty for getting pregnant, and tell their parents, who insist on them carrying the pregnancy to term? I dunno.

    Any ideas, Alison?

    Posted by hambydammit | September 22, 2009, 5:44 pm
  4. Any ideas, Alison?

    Not really, considering I am not familar with the demographics of particular states.

    What’s wrong with saying “I don’t know”?

    Maybe the poverty is causing the increase in teen pregnancy and also the religiousity.

    Also Hamby, if you want to build a solid case, you should do a trend of states.

    That is use the poverty rate/religiousity/teen pregnancy over a period of 5 or 10 years and see what changed with what.

    Maybe poverty is causing both the religion and the teen pregnancy.

    It may seem “obvious” that absitience only education causes people to have more sex or use less contraceptives, but it doesn’t pan out when put to the empirical test.

    The reason I dug up that study is because I keep hearing the argument that absitence only education decreases the chance of using protection and increases sexual partners.

    Since that won’t work, you then go to abortion, but where’s the data on abortion? What is Mississipi’s abortion rate anyway?

    As you can see, some religious states have higher rates than less religious states. Some have lower.

    I’ve heard the stats used to show that religiousity increases the chance of abortion and others say that it decreases the chance.

    Of course the view depends on whether an increase or decrease is a negative thing.

    How would that work both ways? Religious education simutaniously causes both an increase and decrease in abortion rates?

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    Posted by Alison | September 22, 2009, 11:01 pm
  5. Alison, did you notice that I just agreed that religious training appears to have little effect on contraceptive use? I’m not trying to prove a point. I’m trying to figure out what’s happening.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 23, 2009, 1:19 am
  6. You always do this.

    You always say you’re not trying to show or prove anything, that way you can always wiggle out of addressing objections and having to back up your claims.

    If you actually weren’t trying to show anything, you sure as hell wrote like you did.

    You’re not trying to figure out what’s happening you’ve already made up your mind.

    Posted by Alison | September 24, 2009, 2:15 am
  7. Alison, for crying out loud, read my post again. I said explicitly that I don’t buy the explanation that religion discourages contraception. I postulated how there might be an indirect correlation, but that I don’t know. The last sentence of the post is that the only conclusion I can draw from this study is that religious training doesn’t seem to be helping anything. I specifically didn’t assert that it’s causing anything.

    I sometimes think you’re incapable of reading my posts objectively because you think I’m on this huge agenda of proving that religion is a direct cause of X, Y, or Z thing in society.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 24, 2009, 4:47 pm
  8. I think that the first problem is RELIGION! People constantly talk about religion and it’s so annoying! People who are “religious” are hypocrits. People who are christians are faithful. That is the difference. The BIASED media will talk about the religion that tells teens “don’t have sex or you’re going to hell” OR “don’t have an abortion or else you’re going to hell”…Is that what the bible says? Does anyone know for a fact that the bible says do this or you’re going to hell? Has anyone on here read the entire bible front to back to know for sure what christians believe? True christians? Not Jehovah’s Witnesses or Catholics…but true non-denominational christians? I don’t believe that teen pregnancy has ANYTHING to do with religion at all. It has to do with communication. It has to do with parents talking to their children about the true consequences of having sex before you’re ready (which let’s face it, most of us have done). And ultimately in the end, we all have free will right? So, if a teen decides to have sex after being taught that God is against it, what does that mean for the teen? Should we ask the teens who were taught “religiously” that having sex before marriage was wrong? And then should we ask them now that they are pregnant how do they feel about that teaching? I’m curious to know what they would have to say.

    Posted by Heather | September 25, 2009, 12:26 am
  9. The last sentence of the post is that the only conclusion I can draw from this study is that religious training doesn’t seem to be helping anything. I specifically didn’t assert that it’s causing anything.

    But why not assert that it causes it? Isn’t it obvious that religion causes it?

    Posted by Alison | September 29, 2009, 12:10 pm
  10. That religion causes what? There’s something going on, and religious belief does seem to be involved, but my experience of protestant sexual indoctrination doesn’t line up with the hypothesis that southern protestants teach teens not to use contraception. That’s a catholic thing, and most of the states in this study were southern. That’s protestant territory.

    If anything, I’m suggesting that perhaps religious belief effects abortion reporting, or perhaps morning after contraception, or just plain old overdosing on birth control pills as a form of preventing insemination. If it’s true that religious and non-religious teens use contraception at approximately the same rate, and religious and non-religious teens have about the same amount of sex, then that leaves relatively few choices.

    So, do religious teens have more sex? That would explain them getting pregnant more. Do they have abortions less? Are the numbers skewed because religious teens hide abortions more often?

    We don’t know enough to speak of cause, because we don’t even know what the effect is yet.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 29, 2009, 1:01 pm

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