Friday, August 19, 2011

In Defense of Hot Teen Sex:
Paige Harden's Groundbreaking Study

When I was a graduate student I suggested to my advisor, who was preparing a talk to the Society of Adolescent Medicine about the risks of early sexual initiation, that we do a study investigating whether the type of relationship the teen was in, as well as the school environment, mitigated the negative effects of early initiation. He demurred.

Fast forward 6 years to Austin and voila, somebody tested my theory and I was totally right! Paige Harden, a psychology professor at UT, tested this hypothesis with twin teens enrolled in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. She found that teens who were in relationships, as opposed to those who were hooking up, did not experience the negative outcomes or engage in "delinquent" behavior often associated with early initiation, particularly by abstinence people who are trying to scare the bejeesus out of teenagers.

This research is comforting because for those of us who are actually sex educators, not just commentators, bloggers, and Fox News talking heads who seem to think all problems would go away if Teh Ladeez would just stop having Teh Sex already, this confirms what we know: most problems associated with teen sex are actually problems of poverty and sex is pulled into the orbit because it provides a convenient way to blame women for being poor.

Those of us who do this for a living, like my friend Logan Levkoff, know from working with teenagers that it is entirely possible--and often, quite likely--for teens to have relationships that grow, become sexual, and end in a way that is perfectly healthy. Judy Blume's book Forever isn't an enduring classic for nothing.

Yes, teen pregnancy is a problem. Sexually transmitted infections are a problem. But the majority of teenagers who have sex--which is the majority of teenagers--successfully avoid both pregnancy and STIs, and yet the drumbeat about teen sex is negative, negative, negative [see: Dr. Drew, who never saw a sexually active teenager he couldn't pathologize]. There have been no episodes of "Teen Mom" or "16 and Pregnant" featuring teens who actually just had sex, used birth control, and everything is fine, really.

I'm guessing that's why my advisor didn't want to test the hypothesis, because demonstrating that good, healthy teen sex is totally possible (Hi, T and D!) could potentially decrease what little funding is available to provide sex education programs to teenagers in need. But we need to acknowledge that sex itself is not a cause or indicator of "at risk"-ness or a predictor of further bad behavior. Teens who are at risk are at risk, full stop. They may have sex for reasons directly related to their "at risk"-ness, like crippling poverty; trying to force abstinence on them does nothing to mitigate the circumstances in which they live, despite the supposed intentions of abstinence-only programs. But it does conveniently allow policymakers to blame them for suffering "consequences" related to sex and further cut programs designed to allow poor people--particularly women--to escape poverty. But hey! That's the idea. Just ask the Texas Legislature.

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