Ross Douthat reflects on the recent news that teenage birthrates inched upward during the Bush era, after more than a decade of decline:
The new numbers, declared the president of Planned Parenthood, make it “crystal clear that abstinence-only sex education for teenagers does not work.”
In reality, the numbers show no such thing. Abstinence financing increased under Bush, but the federal government has been funneling money to pro-chastity initiatives since early in Bill Clinton’s presidency. If you blame abstinence programs for a year’s worth of bad news, you’d also have to give them credit for more than a decade’s worth of progress.
More likely, neither blame nor credit is appropriate. The evidence suggests that many abstinence-only programs have little impact on teenage sexual behavior, just as their critics long insisted. But most sex education programs of any kind have an ambiguous effect, at best, on whether and how teens have sex. The abstinence-based courses that social conservatives champion produce unimpressive results — but so do the contraceptive-oriented programs that liberals tend to favor.
I think Douthat overstates the equivalence: there’s much more evidence that abstinence-based sex education is a failure (such as this 2007 Congressional study) than there is for contraceptive sex ed, which has been linked to mild reductions in teen pregnancy. But I think his larger point is accurate: it’s really difficult to change the sexual habits of adolescents.
That’s because we’ve been trying to change behavior with facts and information. We’ve assumed that the way to get kids to wear condoms is give them statistics about sexually transmitted disease, or that the way to get students to abstain from sex is to lecture them on morality, or the difficulty of caring for a child while in high school. The problem with such facts is that they don’t help teens deal with their moment of sexual decision, which most likely occurs when they’re half naked and deranged with desire. In other words, we’ve assumed that sexual choices are rational choices, influenced by classroom exhortations and dry information. But that’s wrong.
Look, for example, at this R-rated experiment, by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neuroeconomist George Loewenstein. They began by asking twenty-five male undergraduates at UC-Berkeley a series of provocative sexual questions. The first set of questions concerned their sexual preferences. Could they imagine having sex with a 60 year old woman? What about getting sexually excited by contact with an animal? Did they like getting tied up during sex? The next set of questions dealt with sexual morality. Would the male students slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with them? Would they keep trying to have sex after their date said “no”? The final set of questions was about safe sex. Would the men insist on using a condom? Is it safe to have unprotected sex if you “pull out” before ejaculation?
Each male student answered these naughty hypotheticals in two different states of mind. In the first condition, the subjects were told to answer the questions without being aroused. They were supposed to contemplate sex in an un-sexual state of mind. In the second condition, the subjects were shown pornography while answering the questions. (They were alone in their dorm room for this part of the experiment.) When asked in advance, the men didn’t think that being aroused would significantly alter their answers. They assumed that their sexual preferences were relatively immune to such temporary emotional biases.
The men were completely wrong. Their desire to engage in peculiar sexual acts – like being tied up, or getting spanked while having sex – nearly doubled when they were aroused. Their morality was even more malleable: they were three times more likely to commit a sex crime⎯such as using a date-rape drug⎯when staring at pornographic images. And, of course, being aroused also made them much less likely to use condoms. Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”
The point is that we’ve been arming our kids with the wrong mental tools. Instead of giving them statistics, we need to provide them with the cognitive tools to deal with temptation. Instead of urging them to abstain, we need to show them how to abstain. There is no secret recipe for overcoming our “hottest” urges, like sexual desire. But you could do worse than giving kids a short lesson in metacognition. I think Walter Mischel’s work with four-year olds and marshmallows is relevant here:
At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait [to delay gratification for a second marshmallow] depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow–the “hot stimulus”–the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated–it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”