Contraception, Cheap Sex, and the Nonmarital Birth Rate

Every once in a while something in the New York Times will bring a smile to my face and offer hope. Well, that wasn’t this week, yet again. In Saturday’s edition came the discouraging news that over half of babies born to American women under age 30 are being born to unmarried mothers. Since the overall total is 41 percent, it means women over age 30 are more apt to be married when childbearing. But I think most reasonable people can still agree that it’s better—on average—when fathers are engaged in their children’s lives than when they’re not.

Now, I haven’t come down too hard on contraception in my previous writings and two books, but it boggles my mind to think that the logical answer to slowing the skyrocketing nonmarital fertility rate is to pump more (and free) birth control into the relationship system (which is also called the mating market, and once was called the marriage market, back when the pursuit of sex and the timing of marriage were more tightly connected). It’s a little like printing money to stimulate an economy: it sounds like a helpful thing, it could work, but it may backfire, and it’s hard to know with confidence what exactly will happen, and whatever happens may well generate unintended consequences, but it sounds noble because at least it’s doing something.

To be sure, contraceptive usage prevents very many pregnancies—duh—but what it doesn’t prevent is all of them, given normal contraceptive failure rates (which vary) and the fact that many people don’t use them correctly (due to lots of reasons, ignorance being only one of them). But what I think typically gets left out of discussions about contraception—because it’s challenging to accurately discern it—is the effect on sexual decision-making of the wide social uptake of the Pill. One can argue whether it’s moral or not to use the Pill, or whether it’s immoral to deny access to it, but the Pill inarguably contributed directly to the single-largest drop in the “price of sex,” that is, how much relationship commitment is necessary (on average) before women agree to sex with men. (If you dislike this exchange mentality altogether and think it shouldn’t exist, well, you’re living in a dream-world.) This shift didn’t happen overnight; social change of such magnitude never does.

But it makes sense: take the risk of getting pregnant out of the equation (or in actuality, reduce the risk) and sex obviously will seem more advantageous and attractive to many. And it has. In other words, as the NYT focus on women in Lorain (Ohio) makes remarkably clear, in the era of the Pill people simply have sex in a nonmarital relationship more quickly than their grandmothers did, especially in their 20s. (I interviewed one college-educated woman last summer who tended to have sex on the first date if she didn’t think there was a future, but waited till the second or third date if she liked them and thought there was such a possibility—which so far as I can tell means “a relationship that lasts a while.” Marriage seems too much to hope for, although she would definitely like to be married someday.)

Add in the factors above—contraceptive failure rates and usage errors—and multiply by amount of sex that is going on and voila: you have more unexpected pregnancies than you anticipated, as a Nobel-winning economist documented over 15 years ago. It’s because the overall amount of sex occurring is greater, and the barriers to it much fewer, while contraceptive usage errors remain stable. Below is my own simple documentation of how wide uptake of the Pill can actually lead to comparable numbers of pregnancies and much greater nonmarital fertility than the pre-Pill era. (Note: this won’t be a completely-accurate formula, but rather my own guess-work).

Older pre-Pill model: 100 couples * 0.40 probability of an off-and-on premarital sexual relationship (due to fears about pregnancy risk, although probability that couples have ever had sex will be higher than 0.40) * 0.30 probability of pregnancy
risk in a year of frequent sex among a minority, infrequent sex among some, and little or no sex among plenty = 12 premarital pregnancies, and 10 marriages in a system wherein “shotgun marriages” are common = 2 nonmarital births (or 17% of births outside of wedlock).

Newer Pill-era model: 100 couples * 0.92 probability of a consistent sexual relationship (due to mating-market expectations of prompts sex and high confidence in contraception, which is unevenly practiced in reality) * 0.15 probability of pregnancy risk in a year of frequent sex among a mix of perfect, average, and poor contraceptive use habits across the 92 couples = 14 premarital pregnancies, only 4 of which become pre-term marriages = 10 nonmarital births (or 71% of births out of wedlock).

Heck, even “perfect usage” of the withdrawal method produces a lower risk of pregnancy than “average usage” of the Pill. (Of course, we all snicker and presume that perfect use of withdrawal is probably unrealistic, but that perfect use of the Pill is simply a matter of better education. But “perfect” anything is simply not going to happen in a community of human beings.)

Now, don’t hold me too closely to the exact probabilities above; some would argue with my probabilities, and I’m sure they’re probably off on some aspects. But my point is simply to document that wide (but average) contraception usage can still spell lots of pregnancies, and—uniquely today—more nonmarital births. Today’s unmarried couples very likely have more frequent sex (on average) than did couples who didn’t have access to the Pill. (They certainly have more relationships, and relationships tend to exhibit diminishing sexual frequency over time.) Thus the risk of getting pregnant in a year will be affected not only by average contraceptive usage habits but also by frequency of sex and perceptions of the risk of “risky” sex. (That is, if your friends are better at perfect pill usage practices than you are—but you don’t actually know that—you’re more apt to be sub-standard in your own usage and yet think you’re more protected from pregnancy risk than you actually are).

Additionally, not all unplanned pregnancies are as accidental as you might think. I have interviewed—and know—women who, longing to feel close to their partner in an physical/emotional way that is completely understandable and human (and a good reason for being married), elect (sometimes passively, sometimes actively) to not use contraception all the time (just most of the time). It used to be framed as “entrapment,” but men frankly aren’t easily entrapped anymore in the contemporary mating system wherein women are understood to always have a choice about a pregnancy’s conclusion, rather than a system wherein pregnancy (and thereafter, birth) was simply a chance couples took in their sexual relationship.

You can blame women for not being selective, but frankly—as a second Times article aptly highlights—the pickings in men are getting slimmer. Partly, the tough economy is to blame, and it’s one of the easier influences to document. I don’t want to underestimate that; the disappearance of the good working-class job is tragic. I suspect they won’t readily return, even if we got tougher on outsourcing. (Facebook employs a fraction of the employees that Ford Motor Company once did, and the former requires no assembly lines.)

But one of the more challenging influences (on nonmarital fertility) to assess is the effect of this long-term, entrenched “discount” on sex. Discounting the price of sex doesn’t, I assert, make men better or women happier, at least not on a grand scale. And I daresay that none of us really prefer this nonmarital fertility pickle we’re in, whether we find ourselves on the Left, the Right, or in the middle. But it’s where we’re at, and will likely stay. Hang onto your hats, folks.

"I'm not sure how i got here, because I'm not a smart person and I ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"Al Gore - the man who flies around in a private jet selling his book ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"Go to the founder of the Weather Channel and see what he has to say. ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"We are seeing more racism. It is in the form of "no white males", "no ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mary Joan Florence

    In terms of the impact on society, modern birth control may prove as important as the discovery that sex leads to babies.

  • Jenell

    Your “exchange” metaphor makes good sense for relationships other than mine, which is based only on love and romance.

    (Just kidding) Great article, Mark. Your work will, once again, appear in my classes!

  • Manny

    What a brilliant piece. This should be the go to article on the subject. Thanks a bunch.

  • Margaret Polaneczky, MD

    Very thoughtful post., But I think you’ve come to an erroneous conclusion.

    If you read a bit further into your Nobel economist’s paper, you will find this –
    “…it does not follow that the prohibition of abortion or of the pill and other contraceptive devices to unmarried women would be effective in reducing out-of-wedlock births. Instead of decreasing out of wedlock childbearing, the denial of choice would in all likelihood, further increase the number of out-out-wedlock births as women who would have obtained abortions or used contraceptives instead give birth to unwanted babies”.

    How many times have you heard the term “unwed father”? Until the discussion around unplanned pregnancy includes men in equal footing to women (and not just as reactors to women’s behavior, but as drivers of their own behavior) , we’re never going to make any progress. Trying to control male behavior my limiting female choice and autonomy has never made sense.

    Margaret Polaneczky, MD

    • Mark Regnerus

      Thanks, Margaret. Yes, I’m aware of what Akerlof suggests we do. Some would call that an irony of his explanatory study. My blog post on the matter was not really intended to press a solution (thus the conclusion “Hold onto your hats…”) as much as it was to document how contraceptive uptake won’t likely alter this situation. Perfect uptake would alter things, for sure. But human actors have been robustly resistant to perfect uptake, and will likely remain so.