By Published: Feb. 28, 2017

CU sociologist’s book examines society’s mixed messages to teens about sex 

In the small, rural Ohio town where Stefanie Mollborn grew up, the prevailing message to teenagers about sex was straightforward: Don’t do it, because it’s morally wrong.

In wealthier, liberal places like Boulder, the message tends to be different: Don’t do it, because you might jeopardize your bright future.

And in conservative, wealthy communities, the message differs yet again: Parents may say one thing in public, then make more pragmatic decisions for their children in private.


Stefanie Mollborn

Meanwhile, society at large runs rampant with mixed messages: You shouldn’t have sex — but if you do, wear a condom; Don’t have an abortion — but don’t have a baby; Be nice to teen parents — but judge them.

“People throughout society are spending a lot of energy communicating message to teens about sexuality which are inherently mixed,” says Mollborn, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Mollborn conducted in-depth interviews with more than 50 college students from across the United States, as well as 75 teen mothers and fathers in the Denver metro area, in researching her new book “Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy,” due from Oxford University Press in March.

Although the teen-pregnancy rate in the United States has been declining for the past two decades, it remains higher than for any other developed nation, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The U.S. rate for 2011 was 57 pregnancies per 1,000 girls and women aged 15-19, compared to the next highest, New Zealand, at 51 and England at 47, and the lowest, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Singapore, all at 14.

Mollborn, whose husband is Swedish, has spent time in Sweden, where parents tend to be more accepting of the idea that teenagers are going to have sex. Consequently, conversations tend to focus less on prohibition than on waiting until teens are ready and becoming sexually active in a way that doesn’t interfere with family life or schoolwork.

“What that can lead to is sex happening during a sleepover with mom and dad in the next room,” Mollborn says. “There is a sense of, ‘Well, we want this relationship happening in a monitored space.’”

In the United States, the message tends to differ according to two variables: socio-economic status and the prevalence of religion in a community. But whether the content emphasizes practical or moral concerns, the messages typically are efforts to control teen sexual behavior.

People often think of inner-city communities when they think about teen pregnancy. But the rate is also high in white-dominated rural communities.”

“That control isn’t very effective, but it leaves teens very afraid of social punishment,” Mollborn says. “It backfires, for example, when they don’t use contraception.”

“In the U.S., we tend to dramatize teen sex, with talk of ‘raging hormones’ and boys ‘wanting only one thing,’ and drawing a line of shame between being a ‘good girl’ and a girl who has a sexual self,” Amy Schalet, author of “Not Under My Roof,” said in a 2011 interview. “Dramatization drives not only teen sex out of the home, but also the conversation about (sex).”

The message in wealthier, educated American communities focuses on avoiding potential outcomes — becoming pregnant, contracting a sexually transmitted disease — that can undermine a teenager’s future plans. Parents are more likely to emphasize contraception, even as they may try to skirt the issue.

For example, Mollborn found that some families put daughters on birth control for stated reasons other than preventing pregnancy, such as controlling acne or the menstrual cycle.

“That represents a continuing conspiracy of silence for teens and parents, a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell,” she says. “Parents are trying to communicate about sex, but everyone is avoiding by a mile the question, ‘What are you, teenager, actually doing sexually?’”

For teens growing up in poorer communities where prospects for the future are fewer, the message sometimes focuses more on moral or religious concerns. But while such messages don’t necessarily stop teens from engaging in sex, they do reduce the chance that they will use contraceptives consistently. 

“People often think of inner-city communities when they think about teen pregnancy,” she says. “But the rate is also high in white-dominated rural communities.”

And when — to the surprise of many Americans who thought it a settled question — more politicians began attacking contraception over the past decade or so, many conservative, religious parents simply stopped talking about it.

“They just went silent, skipping right to, ‘sex is morally wrong,’” Mollborn says.

But one nationally recognized Colorado program has provided potent evidence that acknowledging sex and promoting contraception works. After teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices or implants to prevent pregnancy, the Colorado teen birth rate plunged by 40 percent, and the abortion rate by 42 percent, from 2009-2013.

Mollborn uncovered a more nuanced message, most notably in communities that were both conservative and wealthy, where parents may publicly hold moral positions that do not necessarily translate into private action.

“They may be anti-abortion, but they may not live by their anti-abortion beliefs if their daughter gets pregnant,” she says.

The bottom line? Nobody is talking enough, or frankly enough, about sex.

Teenagers, if anything, may be more appalled at the prospect of such discussions than their parents. But they suffer the most from living in a vacuum. Girls, in particular, still suffer considerably greater stigma, and are forced to assume more responsibility, than boys, not just for becoming pregnant, but simply for having sex.

Teen mothers are often assumed to be “sluts,” Mollborn notes, despite the fact that being in a long-term sexual relationship actually increases the chance of pregnancy. And when she and her team interviewed teen mothers, many were surprised to even be asked questions about the babies’ fathers.

“Boys and girls hear the same messages, but girls are held to it and punished” — socially and otherwise — “if something goes wrong,” she says.

Given that around two-thirds of American teenagers engage in sexual activity by the end of high school, Mollborn sees attempts to simply control behavior as ineffective.

“We’re trying so hard to control them,” she says, “but what we really want is for teens to think straight and make smart decisions. … We need to break down the taboos. The Netherlands went, in a single generation, from a morally based message discouraging sex to a more pragmatic approach, with parallel, radical improvements in public-health outcomes related to teen sexuality.”