Teen birth rates in the U.S. have hit an all-time low, according to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC attributes the decline to increased use of contraception, while abstinence-only advocates credit their powers of teen mind control. Media commentators link the drop in baby droppin’ to everything from MTV’s 16 and Pregnant to economic decline.
Yet much of the conversation has revolved around this: in a generation with greater freedom to break free from gender norms, “boys will be girls” and “girls will be boys.”
Studies suggest that boys no longer have to cash in their v-cards to prove their masculinity—they’re waiting for the right time to have sex. Girls are speaking up about what they want between the sheets, demanding that their partners use contraception. The result, according to some commentators, is that teens are having less sex than teens of previous generations, which means fewer teen births.
Media commentators are excitedly tearing apart hetero cultural tropes like the “horny teenage boy” and the “submissive girl.” But this language won’t dismantle the cultural lexicon of “sluts” and “studs”—the comparisons only reinforce our assumptions about gender.
Writing in the New York Times last week, sociology professor Amy Schalet identifies a new generation of “caring, romantic” teenage boys who are “more like girls” than ever before. The rate of sexual experience among American adolescents has decreased in the past two decades, and for boys the decline has been especially steep, according to the National Survey of Family Growth by the CDC. Schalet notes that teen boys of today are just as emotionally invested in their romantic relationships as girls. Why? Boys have gained the cultural leeway to express their feelings, so they’re waiting to have sex until the time feels “emotionally right.”
Schalet rightly calls the shedding of masculine norms a victory for the the feminist movement, but when she presents the information as “boys are like girls,” she’s reinforcing female stereotypes. In order to use “girls” as a reference point, Schalet has to assume what “girls” are: emotional, submissive, and more interested in relationships than in sex.
This problematic language lurks on both ends of the gender spectrum: Hugo Schwyzer of Jezebel (yes, that Hugo Schwyzer—dude is problematic in more ways than one) suggests that perhaps boys are becoming more “like girls” because “girls today are more like boys.” Since girls have “begun to escape the straitjacket of classic feminine expectations” in school and in the workplace, Schwyzer concludes that young women are now better equipped to name what they want not only in the classroom, but in the bedroom as well—”like boys.”
Schwyzer’s language suggests that women have to act “like men” in order to claim sexual agency. And who are the teenage “boys” Schwyzer uses as a reference point for changes in female behavior? They’re powerful, assertive, and comfortable talking about sex, and that’s one sweeping generalization that can’t apply to teen boys across the board.
Despite the problematic language, any indication that teens feel less confined by gender expectations is great news. Perhaps this newfound freedom isn’t the reason behind the drop in teen birth rates, but if the studies are right, we know that more teens are having safe, communicative sex and and making informed decisions with their partners. That’s information worth celebrating.