We learned this week that the teen birth rate has never been lower. Though the overall number of newborns has declined, the percentage drop has been highest for the youngest moms. The news has predictably been politicized: social conservatives claim the drop is due to abstinence-only policies, while public health professionals are more likely to credit better contraception methods — and greater willingness of young people to use them. Meanwhile, Anna North argues the economy may be to blame; while Erin Gloria Ryan suggested the real reason might be "good old fashioned fear and shame combined with teens' chronic lack of ambition."
There's one other possible factor that isn't being discussed: a wholesale change in how teen boys think and act. Writing this past weekend in the Times, sociology professor Amy Schalet notes the emergence of a new generation of "caring, romantic American boys." In the 1980s, research showed that teen guys had sex earlier than girls. Schalet notes that while both male and female teens report less sexual experience than their counterparts did 25 years ago, the drop has been much steeper among boys. Today, she writes, "there are virtually no differences in the timing of sexual initiation."
Erin is right; fear plays a part. Based on research for Not Under My Roof, her groundbreaking comparison of Dutch and American teen attitudes towards sex, Schalet agrees that boys in this country are substantially more anxious about sex than they were in previous generations. Some of that fear is about HIV, or other sexually transmitted infections; some of that fear is about getting a girl pregnant. More than ever before, Schalet says, boys are buying into the idea that when it comes to sex, one mistake really can ruin your life.
But fear is only part of the story. Greater emotional depth, or at least the willingness to articulate that depth – sets contemporary teen boys apart from their fathers' generation. Guys today are more inclined than to name falling in love as a precondition for sex. Schalet writes that the American teen boys she interviewed "used strong, hyper-romantic language to talk about love." Her findings fit with those of a major 2010 study that shattered stereotypes about what boys want: "Two-thirds (66%) said they would rather have a girlfriend but no sex compared to only one-third (34%) who say they would prefer to have sex but no girlfriend. Similarly, two out of three (66%) agree that they could be happy in a relationship that doesn't include sex."
Schalet writes that in terms of their emotional dexterity, boys today are "more like girls" than ever before. Perhaps that's because girls today are more like boys. In the past 25 years, girls have made undeniable progress educationally, athletically, financially –- and sexually. That success has often come with a heavy dose of anxiety-ridden perfectionism. Teen girls' agency is easily oversold; many adults (not to mention adolescents) have a hard time distinguishing a performed sexiness from authentic sexual desire. But this progress isn't illusory either; young women seem better equipped to name what they want than were their counterparts 25 years ago. As more and more girls have at least begun to escape the straitjacket of classic feminine expectations, they've given permission to their brothers to start to do the same. The end result is that in terms of what they want from sex, boys and girls may be more alike than ever before.
As Michael Kimmel, C.J. Pascoe, and other sociologists of masculinity have shown, traditional adolescent male heterosexual behavior has been driven as much by the desire to win approval from other men as by biological lust itself. Having sex with girls (preferably lots of girls) is a way of establishing masculine bona fides. Some of that is tied up neatly with homophobia; the more sex a young man has with women, the less likely he'll be slapped with the "faggot" label. Yet recent research has shown that just within the past decade, boys have become much less homophobic. As fear of being labeled "gay" decreases, guys may well feel less pressure to have sex to prove their heterosexuality. The fact that guys are waiting longer to have heterosexual intercourse -– and are more likely to use contraception when they do finally have it — may owe as much to their own changing definitions of manhood as it does to fear or the economy. That's a good thing.
When I was in high school a generation ago, my friends and I eagerly awaited two rites of passage: getting a driver's license and losing our virginity. Few of us reached our 17th birthday without the former; most of us claimed to have achieved the latter by the time we received our diplomas. It's not that girls didn't want to drive or have sex. It's that driving and virginity loss were particularly gendered accomplishments. Boys were expected to drive on dates, and it was boys who were (sometimes wrongly) assumed to have the higher libido. Guys rushed to get licenses and borrow cars in order to show off; boys pushed their girlfriends for sex in order to be liberated from what Laura Carpenter calls "the stigma of virginity."
In the same week as Schalet's piece on caring boys and the CDC's report on declining teen birth rates, we learned that fewer teens than ever are getting driver's licenses. As with the change in sexual behavior, there are a host of possible reasons. One certain take-away is that the old rites of passage matter less than ever before. Young men are changing in ways that are almost certainly for the better. Less concerned with proving manhood and with a much better vocabulary for their own inner terrain, today's teen boys are clearly fearful about many things. But the fact that so many are taking a cautious, collaborative, genuinely romantic approach to sex is paying off in a host of ways.
And one way just may be that a whole lot fewer of them are becoming teen fathers.
Image via Petrenko Andriy/Shutterstock.