National Campaign Responds to YouthFacts’ New York Times Op-Ed Debunking “Sexting” and Other “Teen Legends”

National Campaign Responds to YouthFacts’ New York Times Op-Ed Debunking “Sexting” and Other “Teen Legends”

February 18, 2011

In his January 31, 2011, blog, Bill Albert, Chief Program Officer and frequent media spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, attacked my op-ed in the New York Times:

To paraphrase actress Sally Field for just a moment: Mike Males doesn’t like us. He really, really doesn’t like us. Alas. Mr. Males has made a cottage industry of being the nation’s lonely protector of the truth regarding teen attitudes and behavior. Mr. Males took his latest adults bad/teens good barb to the august New York Times in the form of an op-ed.

After lauding (I think) “Truth and Justice Mike” for presenting positive information about declining “teen pregnancy” rates—without mentioning my point that the decline occurred only among married teens, which interest groups across the spectrum evidently don’t like to talk about—Albert gets to his main criticism:

In the op-ed Mr. Males says that The National Campaign “defines receiving any ‘sexy messages’ by e-mail or cellphone as ‘sexting.’“ Hmm. The survey Mr. Males refers to—entitled Sex and Tech (PDF) for anyone keeping track—never uses the word sexting. Not once. Nor, by the way, does the corresponding press release (PDF). The report is scrupulously careful in differentiating between, say, teens who say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves—an activity many find worrisome—and more benign activities such as sharing sexually suggestive messages. Moreover, Sex and Tech details findings from young adults (age 20-26), not just teens, and notes that young adults are far more likely than teens to, for example, electronically share nude/semi-nude photos. I guess that didn’t fit in Mr. Males’ narrative about our proclivity for teen-bashing.

Really? Did Mr. Albert miss the National Campaign’s fact sheet, “Teens, Digital Media, and Sexting” issued in conjunction with its survey—or is he just rightly embarrassed about it? Note the word the National Campaign includes right in the title, repeated in a bold-headed section on page 2 entitled…

“Sexting”

…which presents the following “facts”:

20% of teens (ages 13 to 19) have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves, including 22% of teen girls, 18% of teen boys, and 11% of young teen girls (ages 13-16).

33% of young adults (ages 20 to 26) have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves, including 36% of young women and 31% of young men.

68% of teens and young adults describe the activity of sending suggestive content to someone else as “flirty,” but 73% also say sending sexually suggestive content can have serious negative consequences.

72% of teens and 68% of young adults also believe that personal sexy messages and pictures/video usually end up being seen by more than just those to whom they were sent.

These are the typically meaningless, media-baiting unscrupulosities my Times op-ed criticized. There’s no definition of what a “semi-nude” picture is, nor “sexually suggestive content,” nor “personal sexy messages,” or why it is in any way troubling that most teens reasonably recognize that cellphone or email texts “can have serious negative consequences.” After all, going to church “can have serious negative consequences”—look at the shootings, the clerical abuses, the camp liaisons.

For more evidence of its less than “scrupulously careful” approach, note the post by Amy R. Kramer, the National Campaign’s Director of Entertainment Media & Audience Strategy, which is titled—note again the word choice—Sexting and Nude Postings: Everyone’s Doing It. Well, Lots of Them”:

Today The Campaign, along with our friends at Cosmogirl.com, released a survey about the scary intersection of sex and technology. As it turns out, nearly 40% of teens are sending sexually suggestive text message, IMs, or emails. And nearly half have received them. Think that’s bad? They’re also sending sexually explicit photos and video—about 1 in 5 teens say they’ve posted or sent nude or semi-nude images of themselves. Most send this stuff to their boyfriends and girlfriends but 15% of those who’ve done it say they’ve sent such content to people they know only online. Yikes!

Scary? Bad? “Yikes“? Hardly. What astonishes me is that 60% of teens age 13-19 (perhaps growing weary of the paranoia interest groups led by the National Campaign inflame over their mildest acts) say they never sent a “sexually suggestive text message,” even one time.

Instead of remarking on this astonishing point, Kramer misrepresents the survey by claiming that “they’re also sending sexually explicit photos and video.” Note the key qualifications:(a) what “they’re” really means is “1 in 5” (that is, 80% of teens have never done so, and only 15% of the 20% who did—that is, a whopping 3% of the total sample—sent “such content to people they know only online”); and (b) what “sexually explicit photos” really means is “nude or semi-nude images of themselves” (“semi-nude” is conveniently undefined and could mean nothing more than a girl sending a bathing suit photo to her sister). The National Campaign could have asked specific questions but chose vague generalities that reliably produce the wildest numbers.

So, to reverse the lens, by the same “sexting” definitions they apply to teens and young adults, have Bill Albert or Amy Kramer ever sent a “sexy” or “sexually suggestive” message? By their own definitions, what percentage of National Campaign staffers would admit to “sexting” at least once in their lives?

Finally, let’s get to the National Campaign’s chief teen legend, which Albert winds up his blog by repeating:

Despite the fact that the teen birth rate is at an all-time recorded low, it is still the case that 3 in 10 girls get pregnant by age 20 and that rates of teen childbearing in the United States remain way out of step with the rest of the world.

This generalization suffers from crucial omissions, even if we allow for Albert’s mistake (he clearly meant “rest of the Western world”). Let’s provide a more detailed accounting (updated from my 2010 book, Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities, p. 116) that details how the National Campaign consistently helps politicians and interests obscure, not illuminate, the realities of what all sides mislabel as “teenage pregnancy”:

Pregnancy rates per 1,000 females age 15-19

Birth/abortion Total
Live births
Abortions
Alabama US Black
191.0
183.0
8.0
Canada NW Territory*
123.0
100.0
23.0
US Black
108.9
64.6
44.3
US Hispanic
107.6
83.0
24.6
New Zealand Maori
100.0
70.0
30.0
US all races
61.2
41.9
19.3
New Zealand
all races
58.7
32.8
25.9
49.1
25.3
23.8
New Zealand White
43.0
22.0
21.0
US White
37.6
26.6
11.0
Australia
37.2
17.1
20.1
Sweden
29.6
5.9
23.7
Canada
28.9
14.1
14.6
Norway
27.0
9.3
17.7
France
25.3
10.2
15.1
Minnesota US White
25.0
17.0
8.0
Israel
23.2
13.7
9.5
Denmark
21.3
6.0
15.3
Finland
21.1
8.6
12.5
Italy
13.2
6.5
6.7
Germany
15.8
9.8
6.0
Switzerland
9.8
4.6
5.1
Japan
12.3
5.1
7.2
Netherlands
9.1
5.2
3.9
Marin US White*
4.7
2.8
1.9*

 

Sources: Alan Guttmacher Institute (2010); UNICEF (2011). Does not include miscarriage estimates, which are not available for most countries. Birth rates are from 2009 for the United States, Canada, and UK, 2008 for other countries; abortion figures are the latest, 2004-2009. Table updated as new information becomes available. *Canada, NW Territory, rates reflect large, impoverished Native population. Marin County, California, abortion rates estimated from teen ratios of abortions to birthsCalifornia as a whole.

In fact, U.S. White teens have a somewhat below average pregnancy (birth + abortion rate, the only one available internationally) for Anglo countries—lower than that of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, similar to Australia’s, and higher than Canada’s. This despite the rate that the poverty level—the only significant predictor of pregnancy rates—is considerably higher for U.S. whites than for youth in other Western countries.

In Marin County, California, White teens have low poverty levels similar to those of youth in the Netherlands—and even lower birth rates. Minnesota White teens have poverty levels similar to those of Canadian teens and pregnancy rates are similar to those of teens in Canada, Norway, Sweden, France, Israel, Denmark, and Finland. At the other end, in Alabama, where African American poverty levels resemble developing world rates, Black teen pregnancy rates resemble those of developing nations.

The United States’ high rate of what we call “teen pregnancy” (an obsolete term, given that the large majority involve adult partners) is due solely to the fact that the U.S. has higher proportions of poorer youth, concentrated in minority subpopulations. If each Western country broke down its teen pregnancy rate by race/ethnicity as the United States and New Zealand do—and, more helpfully, by poverty and income level—then U.S. teen pregnancy rates would appear quite typical for the Western world.

The National Campaign has been a major player in helping interest groups mislead American policy makers and the public that “teenage pregnancy” is a universal problem technical fixes such as sex and abstinence education and programs will remedy. In an America that spends 15% of its personal income and payroll to prevent poverty and subsidize health care among the elderly, a similar public commitment to end child poverty and invest in young-age health, education and opportunity (as other Western nations do) would not simply represent just and humane public policy, it would have dramatic impacts on “teen pregnancy.” When will National Campaign mature beyond hyping crowd-pleaser yuppie frettings like “sexting” and starts holding politicians responsible for confronting America’s “scary” youth poverty epidemic?