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U.S. Opinions: Chicago

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The truth about teen sex

From an editorial Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune:

American teenagers are awash in temptation, particularly the kind that involves pleasures of the flesh. They are exposed to racier images on television. Popular music celebrates carnal passion, and the Internet offers an endless array of graphic sexual fare. From watching “Glee” or “Gossip Girl,” you get the idea that high school is just one hookup after another.

This salacious environment is a lot for impressionable youngsters to deal with, but our kids are dealing with it surprisingly well.

So says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that when it comes to having babies, adolescents are not only doing better than they used to be, they’re doing better than they’ve ever done since 1946. The birth rate among teenagers fell by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011.

It wasn’t a fluke. The previous year, it fell by 9 percent. These represent just the continuation of a very impressive decline over the past two decades. Since 1991, the number of babies born to women ages 15 to 19 has fallen by 49 percent, despite an expanding population of teenagers.

There are some collateral benefits from the improvement. Premature births have fallen among all women, and so has the number of low-birth weight babies – both of which make for healthier infants.

What accounts for the dramatic progress? A combination of less sex and more contraception. Since 1991, the proportion of high school students who have ever had sex has declined from 82 percent to 60 percent – a drop of more than a quarter. Adolescents are also less likely to have had several partners. The ones having sex have gotten more careful about the consequences. Among those who have sex, the use of condoms has risen by one-third.

The picture we get is not the raunchy abandon so often depicted in popular culture. It’s one of growing awareness of the downside of sex, more willingness to postpone it, and taking measures to prevent it from causing pregnancy.

Those steps are what parents, teachers and public health professionals have been urging on adolescents for decades now. Surprise: They’ve been listening.

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