A Revised View
Two explanations are offered in the demographic literature for the increase in adolescent pregnancies and abortions since 1970: that of mainstream demographers, who proclaim a "rise in teenage sexual activity"; and that of feminist sociologists, who emphasize a continuity of traditional sexual norms in the midst of changing conditions. Both are focused primarily on issues of sexuality rather than the socioeconomic conditions we considered as the essential "background" to this increase in Chapter 4. Both give us pieces of useful information, but are ultimately unable to explain historical transformations in sexuality and their connection to abortion trends.
Family planners and demographers tend to explain the rise in teenage pregnancies and abortions in terms that are strangely akin to those of their political adversaries on the right. For both, the source is an increase in teenage sex, defined as heterosexual intercourse; and for both this is seen as a "problem"—a moral problem for conservatives, a public health problem for liberals.9 The main programmatic difference between them is that the New Right and the conservatives in the Reagan administration would like to stop this activity, whereas liberals and family planners take the view that stopping it is impossible and that its negative effects should be curtailed through birth control and abortion services, sex education, and V. D. prevention. According to the right-wing position, the availability of birth control and abortion is a major cause of increased sexual activity (along with "permissiveness," feminism, etc.), whereas for liberals availability is a necessary consequence of this activity. As far as a concept of sexuality is concerned, however, there is nothing in the liberal family planners’ position that diverges much from certain traditional assumptions that I presume most conservatives share: a view of sex as organized around genital intercourse, not pleasure; a view of heterosexuality as normative (family planners just don’t know what to do with homosexuality, since they believe it falls so thoroughly outside their domain, whereas the New Right declares war against it); and an implicit view that what is recognized as sex is inappropriate behavior for certain age groups.10
The hysteria about teenage sexuality and pregnancy characteristic of the Reagan administration and the New Right originated among liberal demographers and family planners, who "discovered" an "epidemic" of teenage sexual activity in the mid-1970s. After the 1976 publication of the pamphlet "Eleven Million Teenagers: What Can Be Done About the Epidemic of Adolescent Pregnancies in the U. S./’11 the image of rampant teenage promiscuity linked to rising pregnancy and illegitimacy rates was quickly absorbed by the media and policy makers. The result was the creation, in 1978, of a federal Office of Adolescent Pregnancy and the rechanneling of government family planning resources into research and outreach programs involving teenagers. It is ironic that today that office is headed by a staunch antiabortionist who opposes giving teenagers access not only to abortion but to sex education and birth control services without their parents’ permission. But while the program has changed, the focus on teenagers is just as aggressive and the underlying theme, the sexual visibility of teenage girls, just as pronounced. As we saw earlier, the alarm signals about an "epidemic" were exaggerated given the actual trends in teenage childbearing. But the "eleven million" in the pamphlet’s title referred neither to teenage pregnancies nor to illegitimate births but to the estimated number of "sexually active" young women. In other words, the family planning and media campaign itself helped define and demarcate the "sexual" teenage girl in the 1970s. The language of an epidemic provides not merely a label but a whole system of organization and containment. An epidemic calls for data gathering, subcategorization, and public strategies of control; it defines an area of "sexual life" as a domain of social intervention. The object of this sexual-social construction is clearly girls, as evidenced by the fact that the interventions are aimed exclusively at abortion, prescription birth control, and pregnancies.
In their own terms, which are normative as well as quantitative, the estimates of demographers are not incorrect. More teenage white women in the 1970s apparently did engage in premarital heterosexual intercourse, and at earlier ages, than their parents’ and grandparents’, and even their older sisters’ generation, as indicated in Table 6-1. It is clear from these data that the increasing incidence and frequency of premarital intercourse among white teenage girls was as great or greater during the 1970s as it was in the whole period from the "stable" 1940s to the 1970s. What this means, according to adolescent sex researchers, is that girls’ "sexual behavior" has "caught up" to that of boys, which has not increased in nearly the magnitude of girls’. Moreover, the increase in more recent years has been especially great among young while women. This, indeed, is what much of the political disturbance about adolescent pregnancy and sexuality is about.
Zelnik and Kantner base their highly influential conclusion about a rise in sexual activity among white American teenage girls on the following changes: (1) a 30 percent increase in the number who had ever engaged in premarital intercourse; (2) a lowering age at which sex (heterosexual intercourse) is initiated; and (3) "less exclusivity in the choice of partners."
Table 6-1. Percentages of Teenage Women Who Have Ever Had Premarital Intercourse, by Age and Race, Selected Years
a Data available for white women only.
Sources: Theodore Caplow et al., Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), Appendix A, Table 8-1; and Melvin Zelnik and John F. Kantner, "Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use and Pregnancy Among Metropolitan-Area Teenagers: 1971-1979," Family Planning Perspectives 12 (September/October 1980), Table 1.
By 1979, an apparently record-breaking 50 percent of all teenage women— substantially higher among those eighteen and nineteen—were "sexually active," with well over a third using no form of contraception and two – thirds of these becoming pregnant.12
Now, even if all these young women used contraception, it would still be true that more heterosexual intercourse would result in more unwanted pregnancies and hence in a higher incidence of abortion. But beyond that, there is little we can conclude from this crude and narrow data about "incidence" and "frequencies" of intercourse. The data tell us nothing about the actual ways in which sexuality among teenagers is lived and understood, the circumstances in which noncontraception is "chosen" as a sexual strategy, or whether anything resembling a "sexual revolution" has occurred. Because they are primarily concerned with predicting unplanned pregnancies and births, population specialists define "sexual activity" in the narrowest terms—sex that can result in pregnancy. They assume that "the ‘sexual revolution’ is in the end just about more sexuality," rather than "different ways being developed of organizing sexual behavior."13
The focus of demographic studies on numbers of women who have ever, even once, experienced heterosexual intercourse masks more than it reveals about sexual practices and consciousness—for example, the possibility that having such an experience once, at a certain age, under certain circumstances, may make a girl less rather than more "sexually active."
It is based on the "drive" model of sex and assumes that sex is a kind of energy that gets stored up and then "activated." Zelnik and Kantner qualify their finding of a rise in sexual activity with the almost contradictory statement that "many sexually experienced teenagers are relatively inactive sexually." Over half of the 1976 interviewees had no sexual intercourse in the month preceding the interview; and all showed a decline in the frequency of intercourse between 1971 and 1976, despite the rise in the proportion who had "done it" at least once.14 This is particularly true in the first year after "sexual initiation" and for the youngest teenagers, who are the least likely to use contraception.
Zabin, Kantner, and Zelnik found that "half of all initial premarital teenage pregnancies occur in the first six months of sexual activity, and more than one-fifth in the first month." They attribute this pattern to the tendency among "younger adolescents especially" to delay contraceptive use until they have become more sexually experienced, explaining nonuse by the "intermittent and sporadic" and "largely unplanned" character of sex in the lives of many young women, especially those in the early teen years. A major reason such women give for nonuse is not lack of access to or information about contraception, but that "they had not expected to have intercourse."15 Interviews with teenagers in the early 1980s confirm this pattern, with many of the young women reporting having had sexual intercourse once at age 13-15, then avoiding it for many months.16
These studies of teenage sexuality lead to the ironic conclusion that teenage unwanted pregnancies may occur because these young women are "relatively inactive sexually"! More precisely, they indicate that "sexual experience" has different meanings for women at different stages of development, since the pattern of sporadic and unanticipated intercourse is especially prevalent among teenagers age seventeen and under. This is significant, for it is among this age group that most of the decade’s increase in teenage out-of-wedlock births is concentrated. That this pattern of sporadic sexual encounters has resulted in rising rates of unwanted pregnancy among young white teenagers is not surprising, given (1) the shift away from early marriage and toward higher college attendance and labor force participation; (2) the earlier age at menstruation and increased fecundity of today’s teenage girls relative to their mothers and grandmothers, due largely to improved health and nutrition;17 and (3) the continued prevalence of "traditional" norms and expectations about appropriate female behavior. In fact, if we look again at Table 6-1, we find that the highest percentages of teenagers to experience "premarital intercourse" are eighteen – and nineteen-year-olds, most of whom would have been married thirty years ago. Thus, although teenage women, especially whites, are more likely to get pregnant unintentionally than they were in the past, neither their higher illegitimacy and abortion rates nor their "higher frequencies" and "earlier onset" of sexual intercourse may be indicators of greater sexuality or sexual awareness.