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.