As I found when researching this, sex education is a nebulous topic. There are some districts that lump it in with HIV/AIDS discussions, and some that don't. There are some districts that teach both and vary what they do and do not teach within the two, and some that don't. For the purposes of this article I considered either of them to be a discussion on sex education. As state laws often change, I encountered numerous discrepancies, generally falling back on this brief when stuck as it is the most recent I could find. My teen pregnancy rates for each state are based on the 2010 U.S. Census. The reason I focused on teen pregnancy rates and not abortion rates or STD rates is because I felt it was the best predictor of whether or not sex education works. Abortion rates are dependent on the number of clinics in a given state (which is why conservative states have low abortion rates), and STD rates are also somewhat dependent on the availability of care facilities. I believe there have been a few more recent studies on the subject, but they were either not on a state by state basis, or I had trouble verifying their claims. For any religious information, I used this source. All age of consent laws were taken from Wikipedia.
The inspiration for this article, other than my interest in sex education, was an article stating that my home state of New York had assumed the highest teen abortion rate in the country. What struck me was that the article did little to address the root cause of the issue: teen pregnancies. In fact, most anti-abortion efforts seem reluctant to head the problem off at the pass so to speak.
Thus I sought to discover whether or not there was one factor, or a combination of factors that would produce significantly lower teen pregnancy rates based on the state by state data. My path was a little meandering but with so many varied points, I don't know any better way to present the data. Oh, and for a point of comparison, the National Average at the time of the study was 34.2 pregnancies per 1,000 teens.
Age of Consent Laws
My first stop was at the absolute age of consent laws for each state. By that I mean, at what age is someone judged able to consent to sex with anyone else of any age? For each state and the District of Columbia, this is either 16, 17, or 18 (ignoring odd legal precedents set with consenting minors and things like that).
- Age 16 (n=31) - 34.0
- Age 17 (9) - 38.8
- Age 18 (11) - 31.5
All this really did was show that age is no indicator of sexual maturity. Interview a hundred different 16 year olds, and you'll likely get a hundred different levels of ability to handle the world.
Romeo And Juliet Laws
For those that aren't aware, Romeo and Juliet laws are laws that allow for consenting sex between two people of non-consenting ages if their ages are close to one another. For example, Connecticut (16) gives a 12 year old the ability to consent to a 13 year old, and Delaware (18) gives a 16 or 17 year old the ability to consent to someone younger than thirty.
- Age 12 (2) - 20.6
- Age 13 (5) - 30.3
- Age 14 (7) - 35.0
- Age 15 (4) - 26.7
- Age 16 (20) - 36.2
- Age 17 (8) - 39.5
- Age 18 (5) - 32.3
Of course, each age is inclusive of the ones below it, so I looked at the numbers that way as well.
- 12 and Under (2) - 20.6
- 13 and Under (7) - 27.5
- 14 and Under (14) - 31.3
- 15 and Under (18) - 30.3
- 16 and Under (38) - 33.4
- 17 and Under (46) - 34.4
The reason there's such a jump at 16 is because this incorporates a lot of southern states with high teen pregnancy rates. The downside of breaking up a sample size of 51 is that you eventually end up skewing yourself somewhere.
Again, age indicates very little about a person's capability to make good decisions. However, it stands to reason that if teens in a given state can have sex at an earlier age, they're probably being educated at an earlier age.
Sex ed. was where I wanted to find myself eventually because no number of laws is ever going to prevent a behavior that is impossible to enforce. As stated above, this was harder to define than I imagined.
- Required to provide any sex ed. (24) - 34.7
- Not Required to provide any sex ed. (27) - 33.8
This looks damning for sex ed., but it's not. An over-simplification, this does not tell us anything about what type of sex ed. is being offered, or whether or not those 'not required' states have some sort of regulations in the event that it is offered in certain schools. Thus I went down a level to sort by those regulations.
- Abstinence Only sex ed. (24) - 35.9
- Stress Abstinence, but teach other forms of contraception (13) - 34.1
- Cover Abstinence, and teach other forms of contraception (10) - 32.0
- No sex ed. requirements or regulations (4) - 30.5
There are flaws in this analysis as well. For example, it's difficult to ascertain the prevalence of sex ed. in states that do not require it, but regulate it if taught. And stressing and covering abstinence are two highly subjective terms with a great degree of variation.
- Required to provide sex ed. AND include contraception (12) - 32.7
- Not required to teach contraception (39) - 34.7
You'd think there would be more of a disparity, but several states with high teen pregnancy rates have decided to start doing something about it.
This was mostly out of personal curiosity as there are religious people that have a healthy opinion of sex and pass that down to their kids, and those that do not. Still, these were my two best indicators of high pregnancy rates.
- Most religious states (84-94% religiously affiliated) (25) - 37.6
- Least religious states (73-83%) (26) - 31.0
- Religious top ten (88% +) (with ties) (12) - 41.9
- Religious bottom ten (78% -) (10) - 26.5
The halfway line is somewhat arbitrary and features states on either side within a percentage point of each other, which is why I further split things into a top and bottom ten. Of the 12 most religious states, 6 of them (MS, AL, LA, KY, OK, TX) were in the top ten in terms of teen pregnancy rates. Only one (NJ) was in the bottom ten. Of the 10 least religious states, 5 of them (CT, RI, ME, NH, VT) were in the bottom ten in terms of teen pregnancy rates.
- Most Evangelicals (25-53%) (26) - 40.3
- Fewest Evangelicals (7-24%) (25) - 27.9
- Evangelical top ten (36% +) (10) - 44.9
- Evangelical bottom ten (excluding too many ties) (9) - 22.3
Again, the halfway line was arbitrary, but the results were damning. Of the 10 most evangelical states, 5 of them (WV, MS, AL, AK, OK) were in the top ten in terms of teen pregnancy rates. Of the 9 least evangelical states, 7 of them (CT, RI, NH, MA, VT, NY, NJ) were in the bottom ten in terms of teen pregnancy rates. Oddly enough, there wasn't much of a difference in the amount of states whose sex ed. curricula included condoms in either category. Like I said, some of the southern states are starting to learn that maybe abstinence-only sex ed. doesn't work so well.
Finally, I looked at two instances that added several controllable aspects together.
- Age of consent 15 or below, Sex ed. required with contraception taught (6) - 24.7
- Age of consent 16 or below, sex ed. required with contraception taught (11) - 30.8
Both below the national average.
This is an over-simplified analysis. There are many other aspects to consider, among them racial bias, the quality of public schools, the quality and access to healthcare. If you were to ask me for the best solution, I would instill Romeo and Juliet laws in every state to keep from needlessly populating sex offender registries and begin comprehensive (that means condoms) sex education in middle school with condoms widely available.
If you want to fiddle with my data, here.