Inside the new sex stats: Who is who?

online_romance.jpgIt’s time for another quick tmatt and LeBlanc double team effort on a news story.

I first heard about this teen-sex study this past weekend during a lively lunch meeting in New York City with friend of the blog Dawn Eden. I noted that clearly the age-old question of how far is too far is alive and well in church youth groups everywhere, especially in the post-Clinton era.

OK, cheap joke. But he did grow up in a Southern Baptist church youth group.

Back to the story. As a professional copyeditor, Eden said she still could not make sense of many of the statistics in the basic wire service reports on this survey. It was hard to separate the basic groups in the survey, pledgers vs. non-pledgers. Non-pledgers who were virgins vs. those who were not. How large were the samples for these various groups?

Dawn, if you’re out there — chime in.

Here is part of an Associated Press report that gives a hint of what is going on:

The latest study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that teens pledging virginity until marriage are more likely to have oral and anal sex than other teens who have not had intercourse. That behavior, however, “puts you at risk,” said Hannah Brueckner, assistant professor of sociology at Yale and a study author.

Among virgins, boys who have pledged abstinence were four times more likely to have had anal sex, according to the study. Overall, pledgers were six times more likely to have oral sex than teens who have remained abstinent but not as part of a pledge. The pledging group was also less likely to use condoms during their first sexual experience or get tested for STDs, research found.

So the scandal here is that students who take pledges are under a unique form of pressure, in comparison with teens who choose to remain abstinent on their own?

The AP notes that the data were taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The stats came from an in-school questionnaire — public schools? Christian? Homes? — that was given to a nationally sample of students in Grades 7-12. You can read the other details in the report.

Here is another statement from the wire service report that I found confusing:

Last year, the same team found 88 percent of teens who pledge abstinence have sex before marriage, compared with 99 percent of teens who make no pledge.

Now read that again. So precisely how many young people in America are virgins on their wedding day? Is the number really that low?

GetReligion readers are urged to provide us with their favorite sites for statistics on this. I imagine the picture is a bit more complicated than in this particular dash of headlines.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    Those are such nice, round numbers too.

  • dw

    Let’s see… here’s the website for the longitudinal study they got their data from, AddHealth:

    And here’s the abstract of the STD study itself:

    Here’s part of that abstract that is interesting:

    “Pledgers are consistently less likely to be exposed to risk factors across a wide range of indicators, but their STD infection rate does not differ from nonpledgers. Possible explanations are that pledgers are less likely than others to use condoms at sexual debut and to be tested and diagnosed with STDs.”

    Adopting virginity pledges as intervention may not be the optimal approach to preventing STD acquisition among young adults.”

    Based on this, I think the press is trying to squeeze a meaning out of this study they can’t get. I also see a flaw in the study — it looks like they didn’t screen for sex ed vs. no sex ed. Given that numerous studies have shown that teens with sex ed have lower rates of STDs, one would think they would have corrected for this, but I don’t see it.

    More interesting… here’s another related study in J Adol Health from the same issue:

    This one compares religious service attendance and promiscuity in teenage girls.

  • ECJ

    I recently took the occasion to review the sex-ed cirriculum at my daughter’s high school. It is allegedly an “abstinence-based” cirriculum, but I wanted to review it for content before allowing my daughter to see it. And much to my surprise, the actual content of the course did not bother me at all. There were a few subjects that I thought I would have to pre-screen with her (thank you President Clinton), but she is 15.

    But that is not to say I had no difficulty with the course. It was not so much what was said, but what was left unsaid. All the important questions were left on the table.

    1) What is the purpose of sex?
    2) What are the sufficient conditions for a relationship becoming sexual?
    3) Abstinent until when?

    All of these questions were answered by a single uniform assertion: “We can’t answer that question?” But these are the important questions. Answer them correctly, and all the problems go away.

    One question the school nurse could answer: “No, my daughter’s sexual behavior was legally none of my business, and she as nurse couldn’t tell me anything about it.” Yes, she could call me if my daughter smoked a cigarette, but not if she was having sex. That message I guarantee you the kids are hearing load and clear. Mom and Dad don’t have to find out.

    We strip parents of their authority, legally carve out a place for children to make adult decisons, and then pretend they are not children. Then we feign shock and dismay at the predictable outcome. Who deals with the inevitable consequences? The kids and their parents of course – and the attendent “products of conception” should they not be aborted. Suddenly it becomes the parents’ legal business after all. Too late and with too many permanent chronic consequences.

    The school nurse told me that 80% of sexually active teenage girls between 18-24 have a STD. Ain’t no mystery why. Me, I am my daughter’s first line of defense. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with her about this subject. Plus, I have a shotgun. Every Father of every daughter will tell you – the best boyfriend is an ex-boyfriend. Really, really ex. ;)


  • Dawn

    According to the full text of the journal article, “Pledge status was collected across all three waves [of the study]. In wave 1 and 2, respondents were asked ‘Have you taken a public or written pledge to remain a virgin until marriage?’ In wave 3, respondents were asked ‘Have you ever signed a pledge to abstain from sex until marriage?’”

    In other words, from a scientific standpoint, and contrary to what the media—fed by Planned Parenthood and NARAL’s p.r. machine—would have us believe, this study tells us NOTHING about abstinence-only sex education. It only tells us that students who signed a piece of paper engaged in certain sexual activities. They could have signed that pledge anywhere—in church, among a social group, or at their parents’ behest—and never have completed a abstinence-ed course.

  • dw

    What Dawn said (though I’m not as much in the Planned Parenthood-NARAL-Illuminiati global conspiracy camp), and also this:

    The press just doesn’t get SCIENCE.

    I don’t think I’ve seen an article where the writer has read any more than the abstract. No one has attempted to deconstruct the study. What does it prove? Where are the deficiencies? Instead, it’s just a “abstinence doesn’t work” and on to the next story.

    Science reporting is getting to be as bad as religion reporting. The press doesn’t understand the process of getting a paper published. They don’t understand the idea of peer review. And they certainly lack context. Instead, you end up with a daily litany of studies that is glossed, misleading, and often contradictory.

    As much as I wish they’d hire believers to handle the Godbeat, I wish they’d hire scientists to handle the science beat.