Friday, November 16, 2007

Teen Sex: Not a "Gateway" to Future Delinquency

There are two common myths out there related to teenagers and delinquency. One is that marijuana is a "gateway drug" to future use of more hardcore substances. The other is that engaging in sex at a young age increases the chance of future delinquency.

The "gateway drug" myth as been debunked for quite some time, but a new study now confirms what many delinquency researchers suspected all along regarding teen sex and delinquency: there is no correlation. Ironically, it took a sociological study to spur a behavioral genetics study to disprove the correlation.

From the Post article: "The latest example started when Dana Haynie, a sociologist at Ohio State, and her then-graduate student, Stacy Armour, published a study in February in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence[...] Their conclusion: One year after losing their virginity, children in the early category were 20 percent more likely than those who started having sex at the average age to engage in delinquent behavior, even when several other relevant factors such as wealth, race, parental involvement and physical development were taken into account. Those findings supported the widely held notion that loss of virginity at a relatively young age appears to, as Haynie and Armour wrote, "open the doorway to problem behaviors."

But a new study by a team at UVA (led by Paige Harden), using twin studies and behavioral genetics, has found not only is there not a correlation between sex and delinquency, but that "youngsters who have consensual sex in their early-teen or even preteen years are, if anything, less likely to engage in delinquent behavior later on."

The twin studies revealed that a twin who engaged in sex earlier than the other twin was not more likely to engage in delinquency, and in some cases, the twin who lost their virginity first was less likely to engage in delinquency.

I'm assuming the authors of the twin studies report took into account the fact that sexual activity amongst teens who are under the age of consent is, of course, delinquent behavior, and it's not clear from the Post piece what "acts of delinquency" actually means.

Nevertheless, both research teams agree that "[while] efforts to prevent delinquency can hardly take aim at people's genes, the Virginia study also indicates that social factors, as yet unidentified but perhaps involving relationships with family and friends, have an even bigger impact than genes on whether a child will become delinquent. Those are the things that should be identified and targeted by delinquency-prevention programs."

Basic cause-effect tests have called into question this relationship between sex and delinquency for years now (does the sex precipitate delinquency, or does unreported delinquency precipitate sexual activity?), but it's nice to see acknowledgment of environmental factors in both the sociological and behavioral fields as it relates to this topic.

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