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No Really, the Kids are Alright

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | August 31, 2010 |

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | August 31, 2010 |

A couple of weeks ago a study on teenage sexual behavior and school performance was presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. The goal of the study, titled Sex and School: Adolescent Sexual Intercourse and Education, was to determine whether the context in which teenagers engaged in sex — i.e. whether they were in a romantic relationship or having sex outside of a relationship — had an effect on whether sexual activity impacted their academic performance. The authors hypothesized that sex in the context of a relationship would be less likely to affect teenager’s academics than sex in more casual contexts.

Previous studies have found a negative correlation between teenage sexual activity and success in school (it should go without saying, but of course correlation does not equal causation). It’s been found that teenagers who have sex are more likely to clash with teachers, be suspended, and drop out of school than kids who abstain from sex. The natural conclusion drawn from these studies by policy makers has been that we need to stop teenagers from having sex at all costs (as opposed to determining why they’re acting out and addressing underlying issues that may lead to risky sexual behavior, because of course sex outside of marriage is wrong and the root of all problems). The argument for why having sex may affect teenager’s behavior in school is that teens who have sex are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of all else … unlike all those asexual teenage virgins, who never spend any time thinking about the sex they’re not having, I guess. The more likely (to my way of thinking, anyway), explanations for the correlation is that the forces which lead certain kids to have early sexual behavior also negatively impact their ability to do well in school. Sexual intercourse among teens has been linked to low self control, emotional turmoil, and emotional detachment for example. All of those factors could be contributors to both risky sexual behavior and poor school performance, rather than symptoms of sexual activity. Still, the correlation exists, and the current study was designed to determine if it held for all students having sex or just those having casual sex.

The study used data from the 1st and 2nd waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and educational transcripts from a follow up study, the Adolescent Achievement Study. The sample size varied with measure as some data was not available from the follow up study and some individuals had to be excluded for various reasons. The authors looked at a number of measures of academic success, specifically school attachment (a measure of how happy students were overall at their school, sample size 10,714), GPA (sample size 4,653), college aspiration (11,339), college expectations (11,331), general school problems (10,675), truancy (10,695), school sanctions, such as suspensions and expulsions (10,766), and drop-outs (11,545). Students who engaged in sexual intercourse were divided into three categories, those who had sex only in the context of romantic relationships (8% of female students, 8% of male students), those who had only had sex outside of romantic relationships (6% of female students, 15% of male students), and those who had sex in both contexts (9% of female students, 12% of male students).

The results for all groups combined mirrored earlier research, showing a net negative correlation between sex and school performance. However, the data becomes more nuanced when the students are broken down into the above groups. Compared with abstainers, female students who had sex in a relationship were more likely to be truant (increased by 60%) or drop out (increased by 300%), but otherwise showed no significant differences from abstainers. Male students who had only had sex in a relationship were also more likely than abstainers to be truant (increased by 55%) or drop out (increased by 160%), and also had lower college aspirations (the authors note that while the drop-out data appears disturbing, the actual number of drop-outs in all groups was very low). Female students who had sex both in and outside of relationships had weaker school attachment (by .15 points on a scale of 0 to 1), lower GPAs (by .21 points), 30% lower college aspirations, 55% more truancy, and higher odds of dropping out (increased by 300%). Males in this group had lower school attachment (by 0.11 points), lower GPAs (by 0.25 points), 40% lower college aspirations, twice the odds of school sanctions, more truancy (increased by 120%), higher drop-out rates (increased by 270%), and lower college aspirations (decreased by 50%). For the final group, students who had sex only outside of relationships, female students had weaker school attachment (by 0.15 points), lower GPAs (by 0.16 points), lower college aspirations (decreased by 25 %), slightly more problems in school, twice the truancy rates, and were 96% more likely to receive school sanctions. Males who had sex outside of relationships ad weaker school attachment (by 0.14 points), lower GPAs (by 0.30 points), 30% lower college aspirations and expectations, higher sanctions (increased by 200%), higher truancy (increased by 90%), and higher drop-out rates (increased by 130%).

The take home message is that having sex won’t necessarily ruin a teenager’s life. While having sex outside of a relationship appears to correlate with negative consequences, students who had sex in a relationship weren’t that much different from students who abstained from sex. No surprise there for most of us, but the potential of such research to impact policy is important. Studies like this one highlight the importance of acknowledging the sexuality of teens. As a culture we need to allow for the possibility that they can express it in a healthy way, rather than relying on scare tactics to prevent teenagers from doing something as natural (and fun) as having sex. Of course, the correlation/causation aspect of teenage sexual behavior and school performance is still not settled by this study. As the authors of the study note, context is very important when considering sexual activity. Our culture looks more positively on sex within a romantic relationship than casual sex (and frankly, the researchers seem to have a bias in this direction themselves). Teenagers certainly internalize this attitude, and teenagers who are emotionally stable and relatively mature (and therefore more likely to do well in school) may choose to relieve their raging libidos in romantic relationships, while kids who are already troubled may be more likely to engage in casual sex.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.