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photos by Lara Shipley

Close Your Legs, Expand Your Mind?

November 27th, 2006 · 3 Comments

Oh, Heritage, Heritage, Heritage, whatever shall we do with you? In the latest effort to portray abstinence education as the best thing for teens next to a radioactive spider bite, Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson argue that teen abstinence is linked to higher academic achievement. I find this plausible enough on face, although note that their analysis depends on carving the sample into crude groups of people who had sex before age 18 and people who didn’t. And slicing the pie that way seems to dodge what you’d expect to be the contentious area: Pretty much everyone is going to agree that it’s generally not a good thing for, say, 12-year-olds to be sexually active. But most teens first have sex between the ages of 15 and 18: That’s the age range you want to focus on if you want to know about the effects of actual teen sexual behaviors.

But that’s actually secondary. What’s really amusing is that after rattling off a list of confounding factors they controlled for (race, income, parental education) to isolate the role of abstinence (or abstention from abstinence), the authors give us this:

Second, abstinence and academic achievement are promoted by common underlying character traits. Teens who abstain are likely to have greater future orientation, greater impulse control, greater perseverance, greater resistance to peer pressure, and more respect for parental and societal values. These traits are likely to contribute to higher academic achievement.

Well, yeah. Teens who are non-impulsive and focussed on their academic futures are less likely to be having sex at an earlier age. But this actually undermines their argument qua case for abstinence education, because it draws attention to the obvious point that abstinence here is just acting as a proxy for sets of character traits that are actually doing all the work: Abstinence has no independent causal power here. So there’s not much reason to think that enjoining teens to rock chastity belts on top of that is going to have all these salutary effects. I think it was Woody Allen who used to joke that he always carried a bomb with him when he flew, because the odds against two guys on the same plane separately having one were astronomical. The joke, of course, is that while this is statistically true, you don’t really lower the probability of someone else having a bomb by carrying one yourself.

Tags: Sexual Politics



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Glen Whitman // Nov 27, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    Shocking: they seem to have isolated the elusive “nerd” effect. We nerdy types tended to study hard and not get laid in high school. But the abstinence was not exactly by choice!

  • 2 Blar // Nov 27, 2006 at 10:25 pm

    An alternative headline:

    Study: Nerds not Getting Laid

    And an alternative description of the problems in inferring causation:

    What good will abstinence education do? Academically successful virgins didn’t need to be taught abstinence, they learned their abstinence on the streets.

    I also like how their causal theory of how having sex makes you a bad student is actually an argument against any emotionally involved romantic relationship. These relationships can be preoccupying, unstable, and distractions from your studies! Stay away!

  • 3 Jacob T. Levy // Dec 1, 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Sigh. I’m so terribly, terribly late to make the same point Glen and Blar made. But I’m kind of amused that Julian didn’t make it in the first place. “Non-impulsiveness and focus on the academic future” needn’t be the underlying explanatory variable, not if by the you mean that the effect was one of abstinence by choice by all the high-achieving kiddies worried about the effects of sex on their future. “Nerd effect” does the job very nicely. (And makes me wonder whether the abstenince- achievement correlation has a higher magnitude for boys than for girls.)