Teen Sex: What's the New Normal?

I was talking to a friend’s son this weekend about his love life. He is tall and handsome so I figured that at the age of 17 he probably has a girlfriend. He said “Nope, no girls until I’m 21” to which I responded, “Only boys until then?”


My intention was not to be facetious. In some pre-industrial societies boys were encouraged to have homosexual relationships in adolescence as a way of discouraging pre-marital sexual relations and postponing marriage. To me this illustrates just how what we believe to be “normal” sexual behavior, especially when it comes to adolescents, is culturally determined; in one society adolescent homosexuality is perceived as advantageous for the group (by delaying female fertility) and in another detrimental (by upholding traditional marriage). So it is our belief in what is best for the group that has shaped what we believe to be normal sexual behavior.

I thought that it would be interesting to take a moment and explore the relationship between economic factors and cultural norms around adolescent sexual behavior. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather, several examples of how economics might influence cultural values regarding teen sexuality.

Age of Consent: Economic well-being influences an individual’s health and, at the society level, average life expectancy. When life expectancies are low we find that the age at which a woman could be said to consent to sex is also very low. For example, in the UK in the 16th century the age of consent was 10 years old. At that time the average life expectancy at birth was 37 years. When you are not going to live very long society wants you to get onto the serious business of reproduction as soon as possible. So average life expectancy (an economic outcome) influences societal norms that govern the age at which sexual debut is acceptable.

Age at marriage: The example I just gave, of age of consent in the UK, is not actually a particularly good one. At that time, land in the UK was extremely limited--meaning that population pressures threatened the well-being of a largely agricultural society. In the absence of reliable contraceptives, a strict prohibition of pre-marital sex is a good way to limit fertility. So limited resources and population pressures usually increase the age at which it is considered appropriate to marry.  In the UK in the 1600’s the average age at which women married was 25. Societal norms that discouraged early marriage reduced fertility and prevented living standards from falling as a result.

Adolescent childbearing: The societal view of teenage girls giving birth is very closely tied to the return, in terms of increased future income, to education. When educational returns are high, as they are currently in the developed world, society takes a disapproving view of early childbearing. When returns are low, however, teenage childbearing is seen more favorably. So as societies industrialize, which generally increases educational investment, society takes a more disapproving view of teens giving birth.

Withholding sexual knowledge from children: Our ancestors didn’t concern themselves with what is the appropriate age to have “the talk” with their children. When homes were small, children grew up with parents who had sex in the same room in which they were sleeping. Our preoccupation with “protecting” our children from sexual knowledge is directly related to the size of our homes. As we have grown wealthier we have managed to prolong our children’s ignorance regarding human sexuality, and as a result open dialogue around sexuality has become taboo.

Homosexuality and gender identity: The advancement of internet technology has made it significantly easier for LGBT youths to discover that there are others like them in the world. Thus technological innovations have encouraged those with sexual tendencies that differ from the majority to act on those tendencies and to publically disclose their sexuality. This disclosure has led to a shift in cultural attitudes and, again, economic factors have played a role in that transition.

So economics influences culture and culture determines what we consider to be normal sexual behavior. If you can think of any other examples where this is the case I would love to hear them.

The 4 types of thinking talents: Analytic, procedural, relational and innovative

Understanding thinking talents in yourself and others can build strong teams and help avoid burnout.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to collaborate within a team and identify "thinking talent" surpluses – and shortages.
  • Angie McArthur teaches intelligent collaboration for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Herodotus’ mystery vessel turns out to have been real

Archeologists had been doubtful since no such ship had ever been found.

(Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
Surprising Science
  • In 450 BCE, Greek historian Herodotus described a barge that's never been found.
  • When the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered, some 70 sunken ships were found resting in its waters.
  • One boat, Ship 17, uncannily matches the Herodotus' description.
Keep reading Show less

Horseshoe crabs are drained for their blue blood. That practice will soon be over.

The blood of horseshoe crabs is harvested on a massive scale in order to retrieve a cell critical to medical research. However, recent innovations might make this practice obsolete.

Credit: Business Insider (video)
Surprising Science
  • Horseshoe crabs' blue blood is so valuable that a quart of it can be sold for $15,000.
  • This is because it contains a molecule that is crucial to the medical research community.
  • Today, however, new innovations have resulted in a synthetic substitute that may end the practice of farming horseshoe crabs for their blood.
Keep reading Show less

Jordan Peterson on Joe Rogan: The gender paradox and the importance of competition

The Canadian professor has been on the Joe Rogan Experience six times. There's a lot of material to discuss.

Personal Growth
  • Jordan Peterson has constantly been in the headlines for his ideas on gender over the last three years.
  • While on Joe Rogan's podcast, he explains his thoughts on the gender differences in society.
  • On another episode, Peterson discusses the development of character through competition.
Keep reading Show less