In 1984, only 14 percent of Americans wore seat belts. Anyone else remember bouncing unrestrained around the back of the family station wagon like I did? Three years later, after seat belt laws were enacted in 30 states, that percentage tripled to 42 percent. Last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 90 percent of Americans faithfully buckled up while on the roads.
We often say politics is downstream from culture. That’s mostly true. While laws tend to reflect ideas and trends already embedded in the larger culture, especially in the arts, education, and business, the state still has significant power to influence behavior and the larger culture as well.
In the case of the seatbelt, the state wielded its power for good. However, the same power can be used to normalize beliefs or behavior that are not good. That risk is greater in cultures already sliding down the slippery moral slope.
For example, Vermont recently became the first state to mandate that every public middle and high school make free condoms available to students. The bill’s sponsor, a Republican state lawmaker, believes that this new law will reduce teenage pregnancies, and therefore abortions. Strangely enough, the sponsor does not seem to think the law will normalize and increase sexual behavior among teenagers.
Why the assumption that the law only incentivizes desirable outcomes but not undesirable ones?
According to most contemporary studies, sexual activity among teens is way down. Though these studies typically fail to include porn addiction as sexual activity, we can all agree that fewer teens experimenting sexually is a good thing. At the same time, these studies show that adults often misunderstand the culture and incentives affecting teenage sexual behavior.
For example, a 2017 Harvard study found that the scale of the so-called “hook-up” culture among teens was “overestimated.” In other words, all the movies, TV programming and news coverage portraying American high school kids as highly sexually active are wrong. In fact, these Harvard researchers found that the way “hook-up” culture is so often portrayed actually propagates it, putting more pressure on teenagers to have sex.
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