Sex, sadness and suicide

Posted: Jun 05, 2003 12:00 AM
Even those TV viewers who consider themselves big fans of the teen soaps – "Beverly Hills 90210," "Party of Five" and the now-defunct "Dawson's Creek" – must have realized that something about the way those shows depicted sex just didn't ring true.

The "cool" kids, the kids everyone wanted to be like, were the ones who "did it." Supposedly, they were tough enough and strong enough to have sex and then walk away. They were able to "do it" for "its" sake. They didn't have to get involved in the maw of personal commitment, love and sharing. No, they could take their gratification and run, and they allegedly were the better for it.

Of course, this didn't quite square with what I'd seen when I was that age, nor with what I see now among my children's contemporaries. Those who "dared" didn't come back emboldened. They came back saddened. Disappointed. Less trusting in themselves and of others.

The sad anecdotal stories we've all seen are now backed by equally sad statistics in a new report by my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation. Researchers Lauren Noyes, Kirk Johnson and Robert Rector have compiled data that show sexually active teens are far more likely to be depressed and to attempt suicide than those who hold off until marriage.

Using results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, conducted in 1996 for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and 17 other federal agencies, the Heritage study reveals that more than a quarter of teen girls who said they were sexually active also said they had been depressed "a lot of the time" or "most or all of the time" in the previous week, compared to 7.7 percent of girls who said they weren't sexually active. More tellingly, 60.2 percent of girls who refrained from sex said they were "never or rarely" depressed, compared to just 36.8 percent of sexually active girls.

For boys, 8.3 percent of those who were sexually active reported problems with depression, compared to just 3.4 percent for those who weren't.

The in-home survey (given with parental permission) of 6,500 people 14-17 years old also asked if they had attempted suicide during the past year. Girls who were sexually active were three times more likely to say they had attempted suicide than those who weren't. Sexually active boys were nearly nine times more likely to have attempted suicide.

One could raise a chicken-and-egg argument here. Does sex cause depression, or does depression cause sex? And don't some kids in unhappy homes use sex to escape depression? But as the Heritage analysis points out, the differences in happiness between sexually active and non-sexually active kids are too large and too widespread for the depression to have caused the sex in most cases. They could've lashed out in any number of ways. Also, a majority of teens who had become sexually active admitted they'd started too soon and expressed regret.

Advocates of "safe sex" – those with the harebrained idea of giving away condoms at school – must face the fact that there is no condom for the brain or heart. For them, the only negative consequences of teen sex they seem to care about are the physical dangers (and even then, with the high failure rate of condoms kids are never fully protected from either disease or pregnancy). What about the emotional and psychological dangers?

Heritage Senior analyst Robert Rector explains that the consequences of teen-sex are felt for a lifetime: "Sexual activity by teens has both short-term and long-term negative psychological effects. It disputes their ability to develop loving, intimate and committed relationships and thereby creates great unhappiness in later life." Why don't groups like Planned Parenthood, etc., care about that?

The only way to truly protect kids from damaging their complete health is to teach them to wait. You never can tell what will catch a kid's attention. Some may not fear pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. For them, maybe these findings will turn their heads – and they'll learn that, contrary to the commercials and the TV shows and everything else that screams at them to have sex now, to get involved now, sex doesn't make you happy and in fact can make you fatally sad. If so, my Heritage Foundation colleagues will have rendered them an invaluable – perhaps life-saving – service.

Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. She is also the former vice president of communications for WorldNetDaily and her 60-second radio commentaries can be heard on the Salem Communications Network.