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.

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