Abstinence-only programs (especially the ones that claim condoms don’t work) are probably a large factor in the overall rise in teen pregnancy , but I think you’re right to look at the exceptions to the overall trends, Jessica . Regional differences in teen pregnancy rates can be chalked up to a number of variables, and the official school curriculum is only one of them. The differences you note between Arizona and North Dakota can probably be explained in large part by religion’s influence on the culture in those states.
One aspect of sex education that doesn’t get much attention is the role that religion plays. Or, rather, it does, but the mainstream media mostly focuses on the Christians whom they assume all walk in lockstep on reproductive rights. But while this hostility to sexual health and information is very real in evangelical churches and the Catholic church, there are also a bunch of mainline Protestant churches that have a health-oriented approach to sexuality. I know that the best sex education I received as a teenager was through a friend’s Protestant youth group, which had a two-day program that assumed we would be sexually active before marriage and that contraception and STD prevention were important issues to us. And when I think of no-nonsense Protestants with a Midwestern, commonsense approach to life, I think of Lutherans, who are the dominant religious group of North Dakota . According to Mark Regnerus’ research into the sex lives and religion of American teenagers , mainline Protestants like Lutherans are only just behind atheists and Jews in terms of delaying intercourse, probably by substituting oral sex and “outercourse” to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Between putting it off longer and being more hip to contraception, these groups predictably would have lower pregnancy rates.
Arizona’s biggest religion is Catholicism -a religion that gets an A+ in the art of shaming people over sexuality and discouraging contraceptive use. Clearly, the issue of where kids are getting their messages about sexuality and contraception is very complicated indeed, but what is not complicated is that the content of those messages seems to have a dramatic influence on behavior. Kids who believe they shouldn’t be ashamed of having a sexuality and who are educated about contraception use tend to be more responsible about sex. Kids who believe sex is shameful and contraception is dangerous are more likely to tell themselves they won’t have sex, and then capitulate in a moment of passion, telling themselves that at least they aren’t the kind of sluts who carry condoms. Frankly, the messages that kids get from church, friends, and family probably have a lot more power than what they get from school.
That doesn’t mean abstinence-only education isn’t dangerous, of course. In a lot of places, abstinence-only serves to reinforce the larger cultural messages kids receive about how they should be ashamed of their sexuality and furitive and irresponsible in their experimentation. It’s just that it’s one factor among many.