A couple of years ago Steven Landsburg controversially argued that if we want STI rates to fall then what is needed is more people participating in casual sex. As counter-intuitive as that argument may seem, the reverse of that “unconventional wisdom” appears to be playing out in high schools across America.
The doubling of sexually active teens in the years between the 1960s and 1970s spawned a flurry of research activity that sought to explain the sexual behavior of this newly liberated generation. Some papers, published in the 1970s, suggested that this issue was one of misinterpretation. Students who were asked if they had “sexual intercourse” misunderstood the question as being asking if they had conversations with someone of the opposite sex.
A paper published in 1974 sought to remedy this problem and debated using terms like “balling,” “fucking”, “screwing”, “making-it”, “laying”, “dorking” and “decking” before settling on “going all the way” as the most easily understood term for younger children.
Using this terminology the authors confirmed that many teenagers were in fact “dorking”, and that the rates were increasing quickly over time. In 1973, over 33% of boys and 22% of girls were sexually active (19% and 9% with more than one partner) and many at very young ages; 32% of boys and 17% of girls, in their large sample, had sex by the age of 14.
Cut forward fifteen years. Now these formerly promiscuous teens have teenage children of their own, and guess what their kids are doing? Yep, they are “balling” at even higher rates than their parents: 60% of boys and 51% of girls in 1988 were sexually active in high school.
It seemed to researchers in the 1980s and early 90s that if things didn’t change soon, America’s high schools would be full of kids “laying” and “making-it” and who knows what else.
And then a surprising thing happened: the rate of teen sex in high school started to decline. In fact, the grandchildren of that first generation of promiscuous teens are now having less sex in high school than their parents did.
According to a Center Disease Control 2010 report, in 2009 a mere 46% of youth in high school have had sex, and 14% have had sex with four or more people.
The question is though: If teen promiscuity rates are falling, then why are youth STI rates on the rise?
The Center for Disease Control estimates that youths between the ages of 15 and 24 only represent 25% of the sexually experienced population and yet nearly half of all new STIs are acquired by people in that age group.
Women between the ages of 15 and 19 have a higher rate of Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis infection than women of any other age group and a Chlamydia infection rate that has increased by 71% since 1995.
Steven Landsburg, of More Sex is Safe Sex acclaim, could very well explain the concurrence of increased STI rates and reduced promiscuity rates like this: If in a sex scene (like a high school), there is only one girl who is willing to have sex for every 10 boys who are willing to have sex, then if one person in that scene contracts an STI, everyone else will become infected as well. This is because all the boys are having sex with the same few girls who are willing to be promiscuous.
Increase the number of girls willing to having sex, however, and according to the theory the risk of contracting an STI decreases. This is because now each girl is now having sex with fewer men.
Follow through on this logic and it suggests that STI rates should be lowest in high schools in which the girls are the most promiscuous.
There is an alternative theory (happily, one that will result in less hate mail for me) that explains this relationship between falling promiscuity and increasing STI rates for American teens. And that is the topic we will discuss on Saturday when I reveal Part II of the More Sex is Safe Sex – The High School Edition.
More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg (2007)