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:

1.) Young people—which is never defined but I'm assuming we're talking 25 and older if not 21 and under—are having sex with less frequency than the generation that came before them. I tell this to my students and it blows their minds since they just assume sexual activity amongst teens is on a linear progression upwards but nope, the trend has been towards less, not more, sexual activity. For example, amongst college students:

"college students don't, on average, hook up that much. By senior year, roughly 40 percent of those who ever hooked up had engaged in three or fewer hookups, 40 percent between four and nine hookups, and only 20 percent in ten or more hookups. About 80 percent of students hook up, on average, less than once per semester over the course of college."

Moreover, Hamilton and England point out that hookups haven't supplanted committed relationships and one point that can be stated enough: they're not new. Hookup culture was not born of the '90s: it began with the Baby Boomers. If people want to get their knickers in a twist about how rampant casual sex is amongst college-aged folks, blame the folks with graying hair and their Beatles' boxset.

2.) One of the most interesting conclusions they draw is that hookup culture—where it does exist—is detrimental for women in terms of the double-standard of public perception (i.e. promiscuous women are sluts, promiscuous men are just...men) but also in terms of sexual satisfaction:

"England's survey revealed that women orgasm more often and report higher levels of sexual satisfaction in relationship sex than in hookup sex. This is in part because sex in relationships is more likely to include sexual activities conducive to women's orgasm. In hookups, men are much more likely to receive fellatio than women are to receive cunnilingus. In relationships, oral sex is more likely to be reciprocal. In interviews conducted by England's research team, men report more concern with the sexual pleasure of girlfriends than hookup partners, while women seem equally invested in pleasing hookup partners and boyfriends."

I'm fairly certain this angle rarely comes up in discussions about casual sex that take on an all-too-familiar, reactionary/moralistic tone. You have to love how simple a motto you can make from it: "Hey ladies: don't hook up, you won't get off."

3.) On the other hand, committed relationships aren't exactly without shortcomings either. This doesn't necessarily contradict Grodsky/McCarthy's study but England/Hamilton note that in qualitative studies where women are interviewed, they point out that being in a relationship, "detracted from what women saw as main tasks of college," which includes meeting people and focusing on their studies.

On the more innocuous end, this meant that boyfriends simply consumed (or demanded) a good deal of their time and energy but it could shade over into issues of control, even abuse. In contrast, they write,

"For most women, the costs of bad hookups tended to be less than costs of bad relationships. Bad hookups were isolated events, while bad relationships wreaked havoc with whole lives."

(I'm pretty sure this is a point many older adults will nod at, thinking, "yup.")

In that context, it may be the case that hooking up isn't necessarily a way for women to desperately draw male attention (how it's often portrayed), but rather, a simpler way to navigate social and sexual waters without the complications that arise from a committed relationship.

In the end, the two researchers conclude that the most productive course of action is to improve gender equality in both casual and committed situations. As they note,

It is critical to attack the tenacious sexual double standard that leads men to disrespect their hookup partners. Ironically, this could improve relationships because women would be less likely to tolerate "greedy" or abusive relationships if they were treated better in hookups.