The Sexual Politics of Poverty


The economic restructuring now remaking the U.S. takes its severest toll on the poor, especially poor young women of color.  This ongoing economic and social crisis is leading a growing number of unmarried teen girls and young women to having babies.

More troubling, according to a recently released study by the March of Dimes, “Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth,”

the U.S. has the sixth-highest rate of preterm births among 184 countries and the highest among industrialized nations.  Today, 1 in 8 babies, more than 1,400, are born prematurely and are in need of expensive newborn intensive care.

After two decades of dramatic cuts in the teen pregnancy rate, the current upturn in pregnancy rates is troubling.  It signals a deeper shift, of young women feeling that their life does not promise a better future.

Young women are, socially speaking, the proverbial canary in the coalmine.  Their fate prefigures the troubles that lie ahead.

Once an optimistic middle-class defined capitalism’s post-WWII glory days; it distinguished what is known as the American century. Against much resistance, it fostered the ‘60s sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade and increasingly risqué (if sometimes over-the-top) expressions of sexuality in fashion, dance, music, ads or other popular media.  Over the following half-century a new, freer erotic sensibility took shape in the U.S. and throughout much of the advanced industrial world.

In the decades following World War II, sex changed in America.  Alfred Kinsey revealed the nation’s deepest, darkest secret: America was not a Puritan paradise but a land where lots of people had lots of sex, lots of different sex.  During that half-century, people lived longer lives; the pill separated pleasure from procreation; the birth rate feel.  This was an historical new social condition, one defined by rock-and-roll, the women’s movement, gay liberation and a more egalitarian, polymorphic eroticism.  PlayboyPenthouse and Hustler represented the mainstreaming of this new sexuality.

Today, a dispirited, vindictive and pessimistic white Christian right is attempting to once again impose its Puritanical morality on the nation.  Freighted by the increasingly more liberal, polymorphic sexuality embraced by a multi-ethnic and sexually-accepting youth culture, the Christian right is using the power of federal and state governments to impose its repressive beliefs regarding abortion, contraception, sex ed, obscenity and commercial sex.   The Christian right is engaged in a campaign to discipline Americans into accepting a new condition of sexual austerity.

This is the third campaign by the Christian right to repress sexual experience over the last century.  In the 1910s-‘20s, Prohibition’s second front was female sexual excess.  A half-century ago, the battle expressed itself as Cold War McCarthyism’s war against homosexuals.  Today, a new authoritarian value system, promoted by a reactionary Christian conservatism, is attempting to repress American sexuality and one of its targets is teen female sexuality.

The Christian right’s war against teen girls is an extension of its long-waged war against a woman’s right to an abortion, easy access to contractive products (e.g., condoms, the pill) and opposition to medically accurate comprehensive sex education.

Austerity is the watchword of the new, Euro-American Christian corporatist morality.  The Calvinists who control Germany and the post-modern Puritans who attempt to impose their values on the U.S. share a common belief in economic and sexual austerity.  Their new holy trinity of repression is: debt servitude, work discipline and sexual purity.

The 77-year-old Greek retired pharmacist, Dimitris Christoulas, shot himself under a cypress tree in Athens’ Syntagma Square on April 4th.  His act speaks to not only a nation but to a modern world adrift.  Capitalism is in crisis and ordinary people are paying the price.  He suffered “suicide by economic crisis.”

An increasing number of commentators are acknowledging the obvious: the poverty rate is increasing as the economic crisis drags on.  And people are suffering.  However, few acknowledge the sexual politics of poverty and the suffering it causes.  Two recent academic studies illuminate the way that increasing poverty in the U.S. has a disturbing sexual dimension effecting teen girls and young women. The authors’ counterpoint three so-called “red” and “blue” states to illuminate the fate of the nation.

Economic restructuring has social, and especially sexual, consequences.  Economic austerity disciplines sexual life.  Today’s culture wars are being fought on many fronts, one concerns the sexual life of teen girls and young women.  Their sexual difficulties bespeak a far deeper crisis affecting the nation, the very future of America.

* * *

Two recent academic studies provide an invaluable framework to assess how sex and class are playing out in American society today. Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine released their report, “Income Inequality and Early Non-Marital Childbearing: An Economic Exploration of the ‘Culture of Despair,’” earlier this year; Justin R. Garcia and Daniel J. Kruger published their study, “Unbuckling in the Bible Belt: Conservative Sexual Norms Lower Age at Marriage,” in 2010.  Together, they paint a disturbing picture of sexual culture in America.  Sadly, neither study addresses the issue of sex in term of race or ethnic identity, a defining feature of American life.

Kearney and Levine frame their analysis in terms of two troubling questions:  “Why is it that teenagers in the United States are so much more likely than their counterparts in other countries to give birth when young and unmarried?  Why are teens in some parts of the United States so much more likely to have a teen birth than their counterparts in other parts of the country?” [http://www.nber.org/papers/w17965]

Their answer to these questions paints a bleak portrait of the toll today’s social crisis is taking on girls and young women, especially in poorer, strongly evangelical Christian and conservative states.  A growing number of teen girls are feeling desperate; the great American dream of living a better life than one’s parents is faltering.  All-too-many unmarried teen girls and young women are having babies to fell a positive sense of self, of accomplishment.  This is a growing moral crisis facing the nation.

The authors identify the inner sense of self as a personal belief in “socioeconomic success.”  Most disturbing, as the authors point out, ”When a poor young woman perceives that socioeconomic success is unachievable to her, she is more likely to embrace motherhood in her current position, as there is little option value to be gained by delaying the immediate gratification of having a baby.”  They add: “When there is relatively more hope of economic advancement, it is relatively more desirable to delay motherhood and invest in human or social capital.”

Garcia and Kruger cite a 2007 study by Lawrence Finer that claims that nearly 95 percent of Americans reported having sex outside of wedlock.  They note: “It appears that although sexually conservative religious thought nominally influences American culture and practice, the vast majority of the population engages in behaviors explicitly discouraged by their religion.”

Going further, they find “that both men and women living in Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) within the evangelical Christian Bible Belt marry earlier on average than those living outside the Bible Belt. Further, those within the Buckle of the Bible Belt, which is considered the most evangelical region, marry even earlier than those in the rest of the Bible Belt.”

The findings of these two studies are scary: in the Bible Belt, unmarried girls are having babies earlier and couples are marrying younger. What is the future they are creating for themselves, their children and the nation?

* * *

Over the last two decades, the U.S. has made significant progress in reducing the teen birth rate.  According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 1991 to 2010 the national teen birth rate fell by 44 percent from a peak of 62 to 34.4 per 1,000. Nevertheless, compared to other post-industrial countries, the U.S. teen birth rate is significantly higher.  According to 2009 UNESCO data, the U.S. had 37.9 per 1,000 while in the United Kingdom it was 30.2, in France 10.2 and Switzerland it was 4.1.

More troubling, as the U.S. is to Europe, so too are some states to other states.  As Kearney and Levine report, “the rates in Texas, New Mexico, and Mississippi (over 60 per 1,000) are more than three times the rates in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont.”  The differences are staggering: in 2010, the New Hampshire’s teen pregnancy rate is 16.4 births per 1,000 teens, while Mississippi’s is 64.4.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, during the 2006–2008 period (the latest data), teenagers were waiting longer to have premarital sex.  It found that among never-married teens 15-19 years, 11 percent of females aged and 14 percent of males had sex before age 15; this is down from 19 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in 1995.  In the wake of the 2008-2010 economic crisis, things must surely have gotten worse, and one wonders if there has been an accompanying uptick in teen sex.

Guttmacher warns that about 750,000 U.S. girls aged 15–19 become pregnant; two-thirds of all teen pregnancies occur among 18–19 year-olds.  Differing from the CDC and UNESCO findings, Gutttmacher reports that “overall, 68 pregnancies occurred per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2008; nevertheless, it found that there had been an equally significant decline in overall teen pregnancy from the peak rate of 117 per 1,000, which occurred in 1990.

Perhaps most revealing, Guttmacher found that “the majority of the decline in teen pregnancy rates in the United States (86%) is due to teens’ improved contraceptive use; the rest is due to increased proportions of teens choosing to delay sexual activity.”  Things play out differently in the different states.  [http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-ATSRH.html]

* * *

Kearney and Levine propose an innovative model to assess teen sexuality: “[Y]oung girls make decisions about their behaviors — sexual activity, contraceptive use, abortion — based in part on their own perceptions of their likelihood of future success.”  They argue the following:

We find that women who grew up in low socioeconomic status households are substantially more likely to have an early birth (outside of marriage in the United States) when income is more unequally distributed in their location. As the level of inequality increases, low socioeconomic status women are less likely to abort their pregnancies.

Is this the case?  Thumbnail portraits follow of the social climate and sexual culture of the six states the authors’ counterpoint, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Vermont.  Three are northern, three are southern; three are prosperous, three are suffering; three have the highest teen birth rates, three have the lowest rates; three have the highest high school dropouts, three have the lowest.

Characteristics of a state’s social condition:

  • Massachusetts = median household income (2009-2010): $60,843; children living in poverty: 13%; high school dropout rate and rank: 11.6 % and #33; less then 9th grade attainment rate and rank: 3.9% and #26.
  • Mississippi = median household income: $36,821, the lowest in the nation; children living in poverty: 11%; high school dropout rate and rank: 21.3% and #1; less-then-9th-grade-attainment rate and rank: 7.5% and #5.
  • New Hampshire = median household income: $65,948, the second highest; children living in poverty: 25%; high school dropout rate and rank: 9.6% and #45; and less-then-9th-grade-attainment rate and rank: 3.1% and #49.
  • New Mexico = median household income: $44,679; children living in poverty: 25%; high school dropout rate and rank: 18% and #2; and less-then-9th-grade-attainment rate and rank: 8.2% and #4.
  • Texas = median household income: $47,679; children living in poverty: 24% (US=20%); high school dropout rate and rank: 20.8% and #2; and less-then-9th-grade-attainment rate and rank: 10.6% and #2.
  • Vermont = median household income: $60,931; children living in poverty: 13%; high school dropout rate and rank: 9.6% and #45; and less-then-9th-grade-attainment rate and rank: 4.3% and #46.

Characteristics of a state’s sexual culture:

  • Massachusetts = high school student sex experience:  46.4% (US = 46%, 2009); the teen birth rate: 17.1 per 1,000 (for U.S. its 34.4, 2010); teen use of condom (among sexually active): 57.5% (US = 61.1%, 2009); teen use of pill (among sexually active): NA (US = 19.8%, 2009).
  • Mississippi = high school student sex experience: 61%; the teen birth rate: 55; teen use of condom: 65.7%; teen use of pill: 14.3%.
  • New Hampshire = high school student sex experience:  46.3%; the teen birth rate: 15.7; teen use of condom: 56.8%; teen use of pill: 33%.
  • New Mexico = high school student sex experience: NA; the teen birth rate: 52.9; teen use of condom: 57.5%; teen use of pill: 13.2%.
  • Texas = high school student sex experience: 51.6%; the teen birth rate: 52.2; teen use of condom: 57.7%; teen use of pill: 13.9%.
  • Vermont = high school student sex experience: NA; the teen birth rate: 17.9; teen use of condom: NA; teen use of pill: NA.

The data comes from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.  A recently released study by Pew, “Economic Mobility of the States,” details that residents of mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states experience the highest upward and lowest downward economic mobility compared to those of the South and Southeast experience the exact opposite.

Most illuminating about the issue of teen sex in America is the fact that nearly half (46%) of teens had had sexual intercourse. Unsurprising, the more “liberal” states has less teen sex, Massachusetts (46.4%) and New Hampshire (46.3%), then the more “conservative” states, Mississippi (61%) and Texas (51.6%).

* * *

The findings of this cursory overview probably surprise no one.  They are obvious:  For many young women living in a more prosperous, more optimistic, more “liberal” state, sexual practice is oriented more toward pleasure than procreation; however, under conditions of socio-economic crisis in more “conservative” states, teen girl sexual practice is more oriented toward procreation than pleasure.

Unfortunately, the question the two studies and the supporting information do not answer is perplexing:  Why do the more impoverished states have the most repressive sexual policies, often with graver socio-sexual consequences?

One factor surely involves the state’s political power structure.  This is reflected in the party affiliation of the governor and the legislature (often referred to as the upper and lower houses).  Another factor is the availability of abortion and contraception services for teens 17-years and younger.

Characteristics of a state’s sexual politics:

  • Massachusetts = governor (Democrat) and legislature, upper house (D) and lower house (D); abortion (parent consent [PC]) and contraception services (all).
  • Mississippi = governor (Republican) and legislature, upper house (R) and lower house (R); abortion (PC) and contraception services (some).
  • New Hampshire = governor (R) and legislature, upper house (D) and lower house (D); abortion (parent notice [PN) and contraception services (some).
  • New Mexico = governor (R) and legislature, upper house (D) and lower house (D); abortion (PC, in court) and contraception services (all).
  • Texas = governor (R) and legislature, upper house (R) and lower house (R); abortion (PC and PN) and contraception services (all, but need physician OK).
  • Vermont = governor (D) and legislature, upper house (D) and lower house (D); abortion (NA) and contraception services (all).


Sexual politics is played out on two levels – one involves public policies, whether enacted by the federal government or in every state; the other level involves how sex-pol is lived out in each person’s private and public life.

The Obama Administration replaced the Bush-era abstinence-only-until-marriage program with the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative. The Obama program supports public and private entities that provide evidence-based, medically-accurate and age-appropriate sex ed programs.  However, the relative influence of federal policy is evident in the tension between its adoption by more “liberal” (and wealthier) states and by more “conservative” (and poorer) states.  (If Romney wins in November, we will likely see a return to abstinence-only, but with a vengeance.)

Public policy is the legislative expression of political power; social consciousness is psycho-personal imposition of power – the internalization of “false consciousness.”  Originally derived from Marxism, it ostensibly explained why people surrender their socio-economic self-interest, the declining socioeconomic status, to the appeal of a powerful ideological belief.  Thus, an attribute like religion, race or “values” could replace class identity as the motivating factor in a person’s political practice.

Wilhelm Reich analyzed this phenomenon in his classic Freudian-Marxist study of German Nazism, The Mass Psychology of Fascism; Thomas Frank offers a popular, journalistic account in What’s the Matter with Kansas?.   [See “Amorality and False Consciousness: The Mass Psychology of Newt Gingrich.”  CounterPunch, January 27-29, 2012.  https://www.counterpunch.org/2012/01/27/the-mass-psychology-of-newt-gingrich/]

False consciousness conceals the economic and social relations that enforce the suffering people experience and blame themselves for. Suffering is experienced in the economic uncertainty people live day-to-day as well as the physical and emotional maladies Americans experience as normal life.

False consciousness is the self-misunderstanding of suffering, whether accepted as a personal failing or blamed on a targeted, “inferior” other.  This “other” takes many forms, whether a neighboring gang or the generalized sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rage that seems just under the surface throughout the U.S. of A.  It’s also the belief shared by a growing number of teen girls and young women that having a child will quell the sense of an unfulfilled life they feel

False consciousness has both a social and a personal dimension.  Like consciousness, it defines not only how one sees the world, but how one locates one’s self in it, thus how one experiences oneself.  The studies by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine as well as by Justin Garcia and Daniel Kruger detail how one’s socioeconomic sense of self, one’s sense of present existence and future prospects, significantly influences teen pregnancies rates.

Their studies argue that teen girls who get pregnant are suffering; they are casualties of America’s ongoing economic restructuring.  If I were a believer, I’d prey for an economic upturn so as to cut the teen pregnancy rate.  This would better the lives of many young women. It would enable them to see a potentially more fulfilling future and to enjoy the non-procreative pleasures of consensual safe sex.   Sadly, such an upturn in America’s economic fortunes seems unlikely for them and, potentially, a whole generation of young Americans.

David Rosen is author of Sex Scandal America:  Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; he writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker;and regularly contributes to AlterNet and the Brooklyn Rail.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.  He can be reached atdrosennyc@verizon.net.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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