Via Radley, I see National Review has a topical piece up claiming “Virgins Make the Best Valentines. Given the prevalence of that rara avis in my demographic, I can only assume he’s urging me to date teenagers. No doubt Derb would approve.
The source for the various claims Heritage flack Pat Fagan advances in the pieces is the (I’m not making this up) Rector-Johnson survey Heritage published in 2003 on the harmful effects of early sexual activity. A few observations. First, the study focuses exclusively on women. To some extent this makes sense, since the potential for pregnancy makes sex a riskier proposition for women, but still, it’s telling how focused this crowd is on keeping hymens intact. Any effects on men just don’t seem to be on the radar.
In any event, the study makes all the stock bullshit moves we’ve come to expect in research of this kind. The big flashy claims are based on the significant differences between women who become sexually active after 21 and those who are having sex before age 14, whereas the variation between the ages at which the vast majority of people actually begin having sex is much smaller.
Far more importantly, there appears to be no effort whatever to control for confounding variables, even though it’s often just blindingly obvious that sexual activity is correlated with the outcomes the authors measure because both are determined by other independent factors, not because the former give rise to the latter. Do a multiple regression isolating number of sexual partners from, say, income and parents’ education, then let’s talk.
The study authors are at least canny about making explicit causal claims. Fagan appears not to even recognize when he’s bullshitting and ought to be hedging his language:
For women 30 or older those who were monogamous (only one sexual partner in a lifetime) were by far most likely to be still in a stable relationship (80 percent). Sleeping with just one extra partner dropped that probability to 54 percent. Two extra partners brought it down to 44 percent. Who would have thought that the price of sleeping with even one partner would lead to divorce for almost half of those who had only one extra tryst?
I guess it’s possible that unmarried penis acts like some sort of malevolent magic wand, cursing those it touches to failed relationships. But the most plausible answer to Fagan’s closing rhetorical question is: “Nobody, because that’s fucking moronic.” What is eminently believable is that people who have only ever had sex with their spouse display that pattern of sexual behavior as a function of a highly conservative value set that privileges the stability of a single monogamous relationship over all sorts of competing goods, and that set of values also produces a tendency to pick a partner and lock in early. (Another possibility, of course, is that both the sexual behavior and the stability reflect limited option sets: If your prospects for attracting high quality sex partners are poor, as might be reflected by limited sexual experience, then the incentive to hang on to whoever will sleep with you is higher.) But to suppose that abstinence somehow causes stability independently is just bizarre.
Note, speaking of value sets, that Fagan’s alternative to this vaunted “stability” is “rejection and suffering.” To how many people does this actually ring true? If lots of teenagers and 20-somethings have “no intention of marrying those whom they bed,” shouldn’t we infer that the lack of “stability” Fagan bemoans isn’t one of those awful penis-curses, but a straightforward reflection of how people want to live their lives? I guess I could have married the woman I was dating when I was 21, and maybe we could’ve made that “stable” if we’d both been so inclined. We’d also have missed out on all the interesting and varied people we’ve dated since—and the interesting and varied sex that went with those relationships. On Fagan’s frame, I must be a victim of false consciousness if I don’t regard any of these that didn’t end in lifelong marriage as tragically “doomed.” Or perhaps that’s just the women, since we men (you see) are reading from a special “predator script.” Which sounds cool. When do I get the thermal vision and the power to turn invisible?
Update: Glen points out that there’s an even simpler explanation for the correlation. Also, it occurs to me that the study should really be referenced as “Johnson-Rector,” since it both names the authors and summarizes the conclusion.