Young people are having less sex than ever before because they love the internet, social media, and their smartphones more than people. That’s what media outlets from The Atlantic to Vox to Psychology Today would have us believe, with support from experts like psychologist Jean Twenge and researcher Debra Herbenick. The evidence? Historically low teen pregnancy rates, an increasing number of high school virgins, and a growing number of teenagers purportedly avoiding romantic relationships altogether. This narrative is cohesive, convenient, (and comes complete with references to sekkusu-banare, Japan’s answer to celibacy), but it’s not ultimately convincing because there’s another equally plausible story: Hookup culture is alive and well and kids are having sex like never before. The evidence here is slightly more anecdotal — Tinder and Grindr stories, climbing sexually transmitted infection rates — but potentially more reliable than the data supporting the conclusion that kids aren’t getting down. So, which is correct? No one really knows. Teen sex is, for a variety of disturbing and understandable reasons, a popular subject for discussion and coverage. But so-called and genuinely credentialed experts know very little because research in America is hampered by rules, ethical barriers, and teens, who tend to have complicated relationships with the truth — if not each other.
The things we know for sure about teen sex lives in 2019 is that they exist and matter (though probably less than teens think). Teen sex is a formative experience, a driving force for sexually transmitted disease increases, and where the bulk of unwanted pregnancies happen. What little public health officials are able to parse out from the research is incredibly consequential. Still, the conclusions they draw (and the way those conclusions can be drawn upon by politicians) shape public policy and dictate how the up to $286,479,000 in government funding earmarked for family planning and preventative health services is spent. In other words, there are plenty of incentives to study teen sex, but almost no way to do it well.
Studying sex in America, especially underage sex, is a mess for a host of overlapping reasons, conflicting interests, and, yes, the prerogative of teenagers. The next time an expert or politician espouses ideas on the way teens today view or are having sex, go ahead and ignore them. They just don’t know.
The idea of a teen “sex recession” came in large part from coverage and publicity for psychologist Jean Twenge’s research and subsequent book iGen, which argues that smartphones, social media, and digital culture have distances millennials from close interpersonal relationships, sexual ones included. The book has been a massive hit, thanks in part to Twenge’s knack for grabbing publicity and a news-cycle-disrupting article from journalist Kate Julian at The Atlantic who wrote about Twenge’s work (the story also coined “sex recession”, which became a fun new phrase to describe what is wrong with young people.)
Twenge used two datasets for the basis of her book — the General Social Survey, which only asked people 18 and older about how much time they spent having sex, and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which has been administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every two years since 1990. The CDC’s studies represent the one exception where researchers are allowed to ask middle school and high school students about sex, to assess risk. Twenge found that sex had shifted from being an experience most high school students had, with 54 percent of 9th through 12th graders admitting to it in 1991, to only 41 percent of high schoolers having sex in 2015.
The CDC’s research is one of the largest sources of information available about the sexual habits of teenagers, but its accuracy has been put into question by prominent experts. Their main issue with the survey is a problem that is nearly universal in teen sex studies: The study relies on young people who are willing to be honest about sex.
Teenage subjects have no real incentive to tell the truth and may fear backlash for speaking up about their personal lives. Also, they’re teens — fickle and prone to trolling. There is plenty of evidence that many teenagers are more concerned with being funny than truthful. Teens lying for the sake of their own amusement is such a problem in studies that researchers had to come up with a name for the source of untrustworthy data: “mischievous first responders.” While attempting to assess mental health risk factors of LGBTQ youth, this became a real issue for economist Joseph Robinson-Cimpian. To account for potential mischief, he decided to include a set of questions that were not related to being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, that kids could exaggerate. The more off-base teen’s answers were for simple questions like height, the more likely they were to report being LGBTQ — nearly half of respondents who said they identified as LGBTQ also said they were extremely tall or extremely short. Other self-reported research on risk factors related to adoption risk factors has suffered similarly, with up to 19 percent of kids lying about being adopted in one study.
“Middle school students tended to provide more extreme responses, suggesting greater likelihood to be mischievous than high school students,” Cimpian told Fatherly. “That may suggest that mischievous responding about drug use and sex risk decreases with age and maturity, but the focus of mischievous responding could shift with age.”
Cimpian is careful to note that his research looked at middle and high school students lying about their sexual orientation, but not their sexual activity, or how extreme and mischievous self-reports could be about that. Research examining how teenagers may lie about sex in itself does not currently exist, but the concern about it has implications on the veracity of teen sex research everywhere.
“Whether the sex recession findings are inaccurate depends on if kids are lying more about sex on recent surveys than on past surveys,” he says. While that is possible, it has not been confirmed in the data.
When precociousness and emotional immaturity does not muddy the research, teenagers’ fear and embarrassment do. “Minors may be afraid to report their sexual behavior to scientists for fear that it won’t actually be confidential,” sex educator Erica Smith explains. She has seen this firsthand counseling with high-risk youth ages 13 and older at an HIV prevention program at children’s hospital for the past 17 years. In her experience, teens are not lying so much are they are more likely to either underreport or overreport details like the number of sex partners for the same reasons adults do — they are embarrassed about having too many and or too few. People are generally poor historians about their sex lives.
Unreliable teens aren’t the only barrier to conducting a reliable sex survey. The rules and standards of practice set by science review boards just as often get in the way. “As an academic, you wouldn’t be able to ask the right questions if they’re under 18,” says sociologist Dr. Gail Dines, who is the founder of Culture Reframed, a nonprofit organization educating parents and families about pornography. “That research would not be passed by the board.”
An institutional review board, or IRB board, is a committee responsible that research is conducted in an ethical way that is not harmful to people who participate in it. In the U.S. scientific studies cannot legally receive funding without approval from the IRB board, which has very strict rules about vulnerable populations and sex (for very good reasons). Sex research about legal minors falls into an overlapping area. While it makes sense to have strict regulations on children for biomedical research for instance, social science does not always call for the same red tape, but is often subjected to it. As a result, many of the legitimate questions about teen sex (for years, this meant anything outside the realm of vaginal intercourse) never make it into study questionnaires What does get through? Yes or no questions using highly sanitized clinical terms.
This comes to a head in a number of ways. While the CDC’s surveys covers sexual details like condom use and number of partners, they only ask about vaginal intercourse. Adolescents are not going to go out of their way to ask if anal intercourse counts. More importantly, the CDC’s reluctance to ask about other forms of sex excludes youth respondents who are not heterosexual. She suspects this is why the number of teens having sex has gone down, but the rate of STIs has increased among young people, regardless of sexual orientation.
“If a child comes in with an STI, you’re going to have to ask the right questions,” says Dines, This one-on-one may be the most accurate information there is about teens sex lives, says Dines, but it only tells us about the worst aspects of it. Furthermore, the conversation and information-gathering session behind the STI stats don’t — and can’t — make its way into bigger studies.
“Based on what I see in my office, current data is probably about right, but as a parent, I wouldn’t make any assumptions based on it,” says Dr. Savita Ginde, a physician and former Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “It is safe to assume that teens think about and are curious about sex far more than the studies might tell us.”That’s why Dr. Ginde recommends that parents go out of their way to talk about sex. Parents cannot control if scientists ask kids the right questions, or if their kids are honest about it, but they can look them in the eye and have important conversations regardless. Teenagers might even be more honest, open, and informative about sex individually than they are in aggregate.
In the end, there is no amount of data that will get a parent out of dealing with the fact that their child could have sex one day and having the necessary conversations about it. There is no iPhone model, or update, or social media platform that will get moms and dads out of talking about condoms, consent, porn, and sex, oral and anal included. And in an ironic twist, maybe what your parents said during their own watered-down version of these conversations was ultimately true — it does not matter what the other kids are doing.
The good news for parents worried about their teen’s sex life is that none of this really matters. The best source of data on your teen’s sex life has and likely always will remain the same: Your teen. Go ahead, have the talk.