STATS ARTICLES 2005

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Are Teen Sex Trends Smashing Taboos?
October 06 2005
Maia Szalavitz
Survey makes for great tabloid headlines, but data remains coy

A new study on sex claims that “Young women are leading the way in tearing down sexual taboos in North America, where teenagers are having more sex at a younger age than their parents and grandparents.”

But does the research really “show” any such thing? The study, which was published in the Review of General Psychology, analyzed data from 530 surveys about sex conducted between 1943 and 1999.

While there is no doubt that public openness about sex has changed radically since the 1940’s, whether sexual behavior has changed as much as the survey claims is impossible to tell from such data.

In a climate where premarital sex—especially for women—was heavily stigmatized, it is highly probable that people were not honest with researchers about their activities. The AP claims that “Between 1943 and 1999, the age of first intercourse dropped to 15 from 19 for females, while the percentage of sexually active young women rose to 47 percent from just 13 percent in 1943.”

But all you can say from survey data is that this is what people were willing to report at those times. It’s quite probable, for example, that under current pressures some young people will report sex at 15 that they haven’t actually had to seem “cool,” while in the 40’s the pressure to lie would have gone in the other direction.

Further, there’s the Clintonian question about the definition of sex: if a survey simply asks whether people have had “sexual intercourse” or “sex,” (and many of the earliest surveys are not likely to have been explicit) people who have had only oral sex may believe they are answering honestly when they say that they have not. Women have long “saved” their virginity by engaging in activities other than intercourse.

And given an earlier taboo about oral sex, the fact that the survey shows massive increases in the reporting of it does not mean that, as one wit notoriously put it, “Oral sex was invented in the 1960’s.”

Survey research like this can tell us a great deal about public attitudes towards sex, but it’s just not clear how well such attitudes are correlated with actual behavior. We know from folk songs, ancient pornography and even the Bible that teenage sex, premarital sex and non-procreative sex have long been practiced; what people will report about stigmatized behavior often tells more about the stigma than about the actual behavior and coverage of this issue should make this clear.