November 14, 2007

Studies debunk popular beliefs about youth sexuality

Two new studies are contradicting widely held beliefs about adolescents and sex.

Sex and delinquency

The cause-and-effect link between early sexual activity and juvenile delinquency is widely accepted. Teaching youngsters about this link is even a mandated component of federally funded "abstinence-only" school curricula. But researchers from the University of Virginia, studying 500 pairs of twins within a larger data set of 7,000 children, have made a surprising finding: All other things being equal, adolescents who have consensual sex earlier are less likely to end up delinquent.

"There is a cultural assumption in the United States that if teens have sex early it is somehow bad for their psychological health," said the study's lead researcher, Paige Harden. "But we actually found that teens who had sex earlier seem to have better relationships later."

The surprise finding "calls into question the usefulness of abstinence education for preventing behavior problems," Harden added. More useful, she said, might be education pertaining to the prevention of contraception and venereal disease.

Hip hop music and sexual activity

Another assumed connection challenged by recent research studies is that between the explicit sexual lyrics of hip hop music and early sexual behavior.

After spending three years studying the hip hop dance club scene in New York, a Columbia University professor said the relationship is more complicated. Rather than music and dancing, it is the old standbys of alcohol, drugs and peer pressure that influenced sexual behavior, found Miguel A. Muñoz-Laboy.

That finding is consistent with last year's research by the Rand Corporation finding that degrading lyrics, not sexual lyrics, are connected with early sex. Out of the 1,400 teenagers interviewed for the Rand study, those who listened to the highest levels of sexually degrading lyrics were twice as likely to have had sex by the end of the two-year study. The researchers defined degrading lyrics as those that portrayed women as sexual objects and men as insatiable.

The San Francisco Chronicle has online coverage of the sex and delinquency research. The Munoz-Laboy study on the hip hop dance scene is in the current (November) issue of the journal Culture, Health, and Sexuality. The New York Times has additional coverage. The Rand study was published last year in the journal Pediatrics.