14 March 2011

Let's talk about

Sex. Again. It seems.

There's yet another survey of sexual habits, this time of teens and college age students. The headlining point is that there appear to be fewer such people having sex. There isn't very much analysis in the study of why that is. Many conservatives seem to presume that it's because of their lovely abstinence only programmes. Those seem, when they were widely used, to have not worked (as in, they did not produce the sort of drop seen here, or more precisely they produced other effects which have now been countered, such as increases in teen pregnancies or STD transmission).

It would be useful to ask teens who did not have sex why that is (and why people who did why that is as well). I think we would find there are a number of reasons.
1) Fewer opportunities. Sexuality concentrates among the sexually active and sexually appealing
2) More competing interests. The rise and dominance among, in particular, upper-middle class kids for extra curricular activities might crowd out the necessary social time required to have sex, and especially to have sexual relationships.
3) More competing goals. The rise of college-oriented lifestyles leads achievement centered people to avoid doing things that might impede that goal, ie, they avoid having regular sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancies.
4) Real abstinence. Keep in mind that this was a group of 15-24 year olds and even with a supposed focus on abstinence, only 27% (up from 22%) have NOT had sex (I'm unclear as yet what definitions were applied to what was termed "sex", as the study also mentions some other... more diverse behaviors than regular sexual intercourse). I'm also not sure why that age range was used. I'd be more interested in 13-18 year olds sexual patterns and then 18-24 year olds, where marriages are more common, consent laws are universal, and fewer moral qualms thus raised about such sexuality.

Among the more racy elements, it appears, as was the trend in other studies, that there's a rise in anal sex and homosexual experimentation (particularly among women in both categories). I'm sure neither of those are trends that would greatly amuse the abstinence-conservative crowd. More to the point, I'm not sure a rise in anal sex is a socially desirable avoidance of sexual intercourse and pregnancy as it carries increased risks of disease and requires appropriate safeguards (plus I cannot imagine it's sexually pleasurable for every woman who tries it on utilitarian grounds).

I'm not sure if they studied sexting either, though I'm guessing that it's merely a more pervasive news story than a new and real problem (ie, there've always been sexually adventurous teens who've been photographed in various stages of undress by other teens, or themselves. The difference is that we treat it as a crime now because we misguidedly believe some random pedophile could someday get ahold of the photos because we have wider distribution systems through social networks and cell phone cameras).

Finally, what seems odd about the entire fight is that nobody seems to actually care very much to ask the central question of the debate and see if it even matters: "is it good/bad/whatever that many and indeed most teens and college students are sexually adventurous, curious, and, eventually, active" (the median age still looks like 17 even with the slight rise in abstainers) is the central question.

Is this even a societal concern? Shouldn't it be more individually determined? Say by the parents and teens/students themselves? It would seem like the only societal concerns are things like teen pregnancy (and teen abortion rates as well) and in particular the spread of disease among teens and young adults. If we have done an appropriate job educating teens and our children on the risks and behaviors to avoid those risks (including perhaps abstaining or at least avoiding excessive sexual promiscuity), then I'm not sure it matters whether teens then proceed to have sex or not. That is at best a tangential concern to the things that can actually be manipulated by social forces.

We concern ourselves with it primarily because parents are made uncomfortable by the idea of their children's active sexual lives as they get older and develop independent social roles and links. In other words, we concern ourselves with it because parents wish to maintain an illusion of control over their children without having to do the work required to actually retain any real influence over their decisions and habits (ie talking to their kids about sex and pair bonding and so forth). Parents are lazy and biology is not. If we quit wasting social resources accommodating parental laziness, and focused those resources on dealing with real teenage irresponsibility (ie, not using condoms or birth control for example) we'd be better off.
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