Could preteen sex actually be a good thing? In what’s being billed as a blow to conventional wisdom, recent news stories have heralded two studies that appear to assert positive benefits to early sexual experience. The Washington Post reported results of an Ohio State University study finding that “youngsters who have consensual sex in their early-teen or even preteen years are, if anything, less likely to engage in delinquent behavior later on.” Even more recently, ABC News ran a piece with a headline trumpeting “Losing Virginity Later Linked to Sexual Problems,” and a sub-head adding, “Those Who Have Sex Later, Particularly Men, Seem to Experience More Sexual Dysfunction.”
Certainly, the issue of teens and sex has always been a controversial one. But in the past, disagreement focused on whether youths could, in fact, be convinced to remain abstinent; there remained a common assumption that sexual restraint was better for teens and pre-teens than sexual activity. By purporting to suggest that abstinence could actually be affirmatively harmful in certain contexts, these studies represent a radically different challenge to current public consensus about teen sexual activity.
But before Americans begin to reformulate public policy (or rethink plain common sense) based on these results, there are plenty of reasons to be wary. In fact, the authors of the study finding those with a later age of sexual debut experience more sexual problems admit that they found no causal relationship between the two phenomena. In other words, there’s no evidence that waiting to have sex increases the likelihood of sexual dysfunction. Rather, there’s simply a link between the two – which means that it’s just as likely that those who already have sexual problems delay sexual activity in the first place.
As for the study finding that those engaging in consensual teen or pre-teen sex are less likely than their abstinent cohorts to be delinquents, it ignores one important fact right at the outset. Because the age of consent across America is 16 or older, a substantial portion of teen and all pre-teen sex is illegal – and thus constitutes delinquent behavior on its face.