January 31, 2009

If you want to boost TV ratings, nothing does the trick like teen sex. Just think of poor Chris Hansen, who spent years building a respectable career as a TV newsman but since 2004 has become forever typecast as the guy who busts Internet perverts on NBC’s To Catch a Predator“€”with “€œWhat are you doing here?“€ as his “€œyou”€™re busted”€ calling card.  

That kind of stuff is surefire Nielsen magic, and it doesn”€™t matter that in reality a teen victim is far more likely to be molested by a teacher or a coach than by some creepy stranger they encounter in an online chat room. The formula “€œteen + sex + crime”€ is luridly irresistible. Once Hansen did the first show, he was inevitably required to do dozens more, so that no matter what other big stories he reports, viewers will forever picture him surprising the chat-room cockroaches that crawl into his hidden-camera trap seeking the (fictional) 13-year-old bait.

More cleverly exploiting the same genre is Greta Van Susteren of FOX News, who has turned the May 2005 disappearance of high-school senior Natalie Holloway into a permanent excuse for “€œinvestigative”€ excursions to Aruba. Every other week, it seems, we see Greta standing beneath the swaying palms, earnestly describing her latest “€œupdate”€ on the case. If Natalie had been run over by a bus in Aruba, the story wouldn”€™t have merited a single national headline, but the disappearance of an attractive 18-year-old blonde trips the “€œteen + sex + crime”€ trigger in such a way that Greta can keep going back to Aruba over and over again.

With the exception of the New York Post“€”I’D BE YOUR ‘LOLLIPOP’: SLEAZY E-MAILS FROM MARRIED ASSEMBLYMAN TO TEEN INTERN“€”most newspapers don”€™t go in for that kind of stuff.

You”€™d certainly never find an esteemed publication like the New York Times blatantly working the “€œteen + sex + crime”€ angle with leering headlines and suggestive prose. No, whenever the gang at 620 Eighth Avenue wants to do teen sex, they generally do it from the social-science perspective, and so the headline Sunday was, “€œThe Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity“€ with health writer Tara Parker-Pope assuring Times readers that “€œin many ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.”€

The Times story was in reaction to a Jan. 7 report from the National Center for Health Statistics. “€œThe birth rate for teenagers 15″€“19 years increased 3 percent in 2006, interrupting the 14-year period of continuous decline from 1991 through 2005,”€ the NCHS reported.

The NCHS report had sparked a predictable round of media hand-wringing when it was released. USA Today reported: “€œSome blame a more sexualized culture and greater acceptance of births to unmarried women. Others say abstinence-only sex education and a possible de-emphasis on birth control may play a part.”€ Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy perceived a cultural shift: “€œIn the last couple of years, we had Jamie Lynn Spears. We had Juno and we had Bristol Palin. Those three were in 2007 and 2008 and not in 2005 to 2006, but they point to that phenomenon.”€

Given the sort of spin that most media put on the 102-page report, Parker-Pope of the Times obviously felt a need to debunk the alarmist fear-mongering. She cited previous reports showing that the percentage of girls ages 15-17 who reported having had sexual intercourse actually declined from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002. And she enlisted the sort of “€œexpert”€ opinion that is indispensible to respectable social-science reporting, with University of LaSalle sociologist Kathleen Bogle providing the pooh-pooh quote: “€œThere’s no doubt that the public perception is that things are getting worse, and that kids are having sex younger and are much wilder than they ever were. … But when you look at the data, that’s not the case.”€

Well, that settles it, eh? Despite the blip in teen pregnancy, teenagers actually aren”€™t screwing around so much. Another “€œmyth”€ busted by the New York Times!

The skeptical reader raises an eyebrow. Less teen sex, more teen mothers? Skepticism is arguably justified. Social science cannot provide a perfect measurement of how much sex teenagers are actually having. The fundamental problem is the reliability of self-reported survey data about sex. “€œSex being an extremely private matter, it is nearly impossible to verify self-reported data about sexual behavior, and some self-reports are certainly false,”€ as one noted authority recently wrote.

In contrast to the necessary ambiguity of self-reported survey results, birth statistics are solid data, and that data confirms that some teenager are, we might say, living la vida loca.

The big news in NCHS report was that Mississippi had reclaimed its accustomed No. 1 status as America’s teen pregnancy capital, supplanting Texas, which had led the nation in 2004. According to the NCHS data, in 2006, the three states with the highest teen birth rates were Mississippi (68.4 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19), New Mexico (64.1 per 1,000) and Texas (63.1).

“€œHmmm,”€ says the skeptical reader. “€œPerhaps demographics may be a factor?”€

Again, the skeptic is on the right track. Plow through the NCHS report and you discover find is that the birth rate per 1,000 females 15-19 breaks down like this:


Teen motherhood occurs more than three times as often among Hispanics, and more than twice as often among blacks, than among whites. And according to the Census bureau, the population of Mississippi is 37.1 percent black and 1.8 percent Hispanic, whereas Texas is 11.9 percent black and 35.7 percent Hispanic, and New Mexico is 2.5 percent black and 44.0 percent Hispanic. By comparison, the state with the lowest teen birth rate, New Hampshire, is 95.8 percent white.

So while some liberals spun the NCHS report as reflecting the failure of the abstinence-only approach to sex education, demographic influence seems much more explanatory. (Perhaps the abstinence-only curricula would be more effective en Espanol?)

According to the NCHS, there were 441,822 babies born to females under age 20 in 2006. Of these, 148,125 were born to Hispanic mothers, 106,187 were born to black mothers, and 170,996 were born to non-Hispanic white mothers. So whereas non-Hispanic whites are 66 percent of the U.S. population, they contributed only 38 percent of babies born to teen mothers. The differential is even more dramatic among the youngest teens. Of the 6,396 babies born in 2006 to girls 14 and younger, 2,456 (38 percent) were born to Hispanics, 2,462 (38 percent) were born to blacks, and 1,647 (20 percent) were born to non-Hispanic whites.

None of that data appeared in the New York Times‘s story, which in nearly 900 words didn”€™t even acknowledge the demographic factor in teen pregnancy statistics. Chris Hansen keeps trapping Internet pervs, Greta Van Susteren keeps flying down to Aruba to explore the Mystery of the Missing Blonde, and the New York Post (we assume) eagerly awaits the next teen-sex scandal of “€œLong Island Lolita“€ proportions, but the much larger “€œscandal“€ remains remarkably underreported.


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