Teen Sex Drama!

by Oliver Wang

Many of my colleagues were out in Atlanta last week for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, a truly immense conference that is like a small town of sociologists invading a series of hotels and conference rooms (as you well might imagine, cocktail hour is off the chain). I couldn't make it this year but reading through this morning's mainstream media (MSM) reports on different studies discussed at the conference makes me feel like I was right there!

Well, not really.

Here's an age-old beef between scientists (social or otherwise) and journalists: the former tend to be exceptionally careful about drawing conclusions from their research. It's one thing to argue, "Data X and Data Y show a relationship," it's another thing altogether to actually argue, "Data X is the cause of Data Y." This is what's known as the correlation vs. causality distinction and it is absolutely fundamental to any kind of responsible research methodology and discussion.

Caitlin Flanagan: Love, Actually
Sady Doyle: The Boyfriend Myth
Aylin Zafar: The Year Without Sex

The problem is, journalists—or perhaps better said, editors—aren't such big fans of that kind of nuance. They want an attention-grabbing headline that definitively states to the casual reader, "X causes Y." A headline reading, "X and Y show a relationship but future research is needed to prove a causal link" is not so sexy. And hey, I work in journalism, I understand the importance of a sexy headline (ahem, you read this post, didn't you?) but sexy + responsible are not always soul mates.

Case in point, there's a slew of articles that have come out post-ASA meeting and one that's generated the most interest by news organizations can be summed up in this series of headlines, all of which completely railroad over nuance and careful conclusions in favor of sexy:

"Study: Teen Sex Won't Always Hurt Grades" (Time)
"Sex in romantic relationships is harmless" (Times of India)
"How Teen Sex Affects Education" (BusinessWeek)
"Teen sex not always bad for school performance" (AP)

Of this batch, all of them insinuate a direct relationship between teen sex and school performance. But you read the actual articles themselves, you get practically no useful information about the study except what the headline implies. Most of these articles are very short, just a few hundred words (if even that) and most barely include anything from the actual researchers (the Time post, for example, has nary a quote), telling the reader what conclusions they're actually drawing and why. The one article that actually bothers to do any of this is the BusinessWeek post but it too is still relatively short.

Here's the thing: I'm not saying this study is being reported wrong, i.e. that the headlines actually misinterpret the study. But if I had reported on this, the very first thing I would have done is contact the two lead researchers, UC Davis' Bill McCarthy and U-Minn's Eric Grodsky and ask, "couldn't it be the case that students with high grades are more likely to pursue stable sexual relationships vs. students with low grades are also more likely to engage in casual sex?" In other words, maybe grades and relationship types are linked by some third factor: personality type, home stability, parental oversight, etc. It's a natural question, something any social scientist worth their salt would at least ask, just to get it out of the way.

And I'm almost certain Grodsky and McCarthy would have discussed this at the conf or at least, fielded it during the Q&A session. But it's not part of the MSM's conversation of the study. As usual, unfortunately.

By coincidence, news about this study comes out just a few weeks after Contexts (a sociology magazine/journal published through the ASA) just ran a really fascinating article summarizing recent research on so-called "hookup culture".

Authors Laura Hamilton (UC Merced) and Paula England (Stanford) are trying to make sense of what's become a fairly high-profile topic in recent "pop sociology" books: the casual sex lives of young men - and in particular - women. That includes Laura Stepp's Unhooked, Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth and Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist PIgs. Hamilton and England respond by looking through a host of different studies to see how these popular ideas hold up to research scrutiny. Here's a few key points:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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