A couple of years ago a published paper reported that girls who lost their virginity early were less likely to finish high school. The authors claimed that the only plausible explanation was that early debut into sexuality was psychologically harmful for girls and that this harm prevented these girls from graduating. This had to make the folks who wrote the US Federal guidelines for abstinence only education happy given that the requirement that students in an abstinence-only program be taught that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” was woefully lacking in any scientific support. A new paper (by the same authors) that tackles this issue again, looking this time for evidence of psychological harm for boys, is likely to take that smile off the faces of abstinence-only proponents though.* And what I have to say about both studies might convince you that if teen sexuality is, in fact, psychologically harmful, we have still yet to find any evidence.
Using a large nationally representative sample of US students taken in three stages in 1995, 1996 and 2001, the authors find that girls who delayed the age at which they had intercourse for the first time by one year increased their probability of graduating from high school by 4.4 percent. This effect of early loss of virginity is exclusively among girls who are non-Hispanic white. The authors find no statistically significant effect for girls who are Hispanic and no effect (significant or otherwise) for girls who are Black. So if early entrance to sexuality is psychologically harmful, then that effect is for White girls only.
Using the same method they find early debut into sexuality for boys has a very small effect (1 percent) but that effect is not statistically significant, i.e., boys suffer no ill effects that would prevent them from completing high school.
So we can rule out a high school completion effect for boys and all Hispanic and Black girls. But the effect for non-Hispanic white girls appears large. Shouldn’t that be evidence enough for psychological damage?
I would say no.
The problem is that while the authors control for a variety of factors that might influence both sexuality and high school completion they have left out one thing – teen pregnancy. Given that a girl is only likely to get pregnant in a given year if she is sexually active then it must be true that becoming sexually active one year earlier increases the chance that she will become pregnant during her adolescence. In 1995, the first wave of this survey used in this study, 5.6 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth. We don’t need speculation that early entrance to sexuality is psychologically harmful for girls. We know that becoming a parent during adolescence makes it much more difficult to complete high school and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this effect is bigger for girls than for boys.
Without controlling for childbearing, we can’t say for certain whether or not there is any high school completion effect for early entrance to sexuality among girls who can effectively control their own fertility and the speculation that girls are more psychologically fragile than boys when it comes to sexuality is just that – speculation.
The authors of the paper conclude with the recommendation that abstinence-only programs abandon the claim that pre-marital sexual activity has psychological effects for a more “nuanced message”. I am really curious as to what that would look like in the class room. I can imagine a group of bored kids being given a stern warning that sex is psychologically harmful followed by the teacher pointing out it isn’t really damaging for the boys but asking them if they are going to have sex to please do it with the Black and Hispanic girls only. After all, abstinence-only education is all about being honest with the kids.
By the way, here is what I tell my own children: One day you will be in a relationship with someone you really care about and that person will ask you about the first time you had sex. You want to make sure now that you in the future have a really good story to tell. It may not seem like it matters now, and that everyone else is off having random sex (they are not, as it happens), but when you have to tell this story to that important person it will really matter then. So make sure it matters now.
*Sabia, Joseph and Daniel Rees (2011). “Boys will be Boys: Are the gender differences in the effect of sexual abstinence on schooling?” Health Economics Vol. 20: pp 287-305.