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.
Before teen and pre-teen sex is recast as little more than another recreational activity that will help keep kids out of harm – a slightly more interactive version of midnight basketball, as it were – it’s important to recall that it imposes substantial social costs of its own. Every year, one in four teens is diagnosed with an STD, and the lifetime direct medical costs of just eight of the sexually transmitted diseases contracted by those 15-24 in 2000 alone will total a hefty $6.5 billion. What’s more, it’s been estimated that the cumulative public costs of the teen childbearing between 1991 and 2004 totals $161 billion, even after accounting for factors like race, ethnicity and socioeconomic class.
The individual costs of early sexual activity are likewise substantial. For girls in particular, in addition to the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, sexual activity also poses substantial emotional and psychological risks. Psychologists have noted that as a result of poor sexual decision-making, girls can experience regret, anxiety, shame, a loss in self-esteem, heartbreak, disappointment and a lifelong inability to trust men. What’s more, one study conducted by the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis found that sexually active girls were three times as likely to suffer from depression as their abstinent peers; another, in the Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that even modest sexual experimentation increases the risk of depression among girls – effectively rebutting claims that depressed girls were more likely to act out sexually in the first place.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with conducting research on teen sex and then using it to adjust public policy. What’s dangerous, however, is to allow the results to be misinterpreted, especially by anyone with a preexisting political agenda. It’s worth noting that authors of both studies used them as a predicate for attacking federal abstinence-only programs, a stance reported approvingly in both news stories.
No doubt it’s important to learn what the facts are – whether sexual dysfunction accounts in part for delayed sexual activity, for example, or delayed sexual activity results in dysfunction. But it’s likewise essential to know whether preconceived opinions are driving the research, or whether research will be used to formulate policies that are as consistent with common sense and collective experience as they are with “science.”