So, About That Study...

Over the weekend, we linked to reports on the presentation of a study in our Twitter feed and on our Facebook about the effect of sex during adolescence on academics, such as college goals, grade point average, dropout, truancy and absentee rates. On Sunday and Monday, the piece got a whole lot of media and internet airplay, even though it was clear few, if any, reporting on it had yet looked at the study itself.

This morning, we were able to sit down and read the study, Sex and School: Adolescent Sexual Intercourse and Education (Bill McCarthy, Sociology, University of California Davis and Eric Grodsky, Sociology, University of Minnesota), which Bill McCarthy graciously emailed us when we requested it, and he also graciously answered a few of my questions about it directly. We're going to have a larger conversation with them soon that we'll publish here, but as that may take a while, we wanted to clear some of the smoke before it got much thicker. It's a solid study with some important and interesting information, a whole lot of which is either being misreported or not reported on at all.

It's not news that mainstream media tends to do a poor job reporting on both science and sex, and a poorer job still when young people are involved. Resisting salacious headlines or claims appears to be intensely challenging for many when teenagers and sex are the subject. There were a couple standouts -- and Oliver Wang's piece on this and another study over at The Atlantic deserve special mention -- but on the whole, most reports misrepresented the study and its findings in some way, and many demonstrated that right in their headline.

Here's some of what has gone unreported or has been poorly reported:

This study was done expressly about sexual intercourse, NOT about other sexual activities like oral sex. The study does not clearly define intercourse, so I asked William McCarthy to clarify that for me. He said, "We asked specifically about sexual intercourse and I assume that most if not all youth interpreted the question as vaginal intercourse. We did not exclude anyone from the analysis on the basis of sexual [orientation] but I think that we can't with any confidence make any claims about same gender sex." In other words, one of the authors makes clear we should probably figure these results are relevant only or primarily to those having male/female intercourse.

Many are saying that this is about "committed relationships." The term "commitment" is present in most reports, like with the brief coverage about the report at Time Magazine, which stated that, "the results found that if students have sex within a committed relationship, there is no resulting effect on grades." The San Francisco Gate said, "A provocative new study has found that teens in committed relationships do no better or worse in school than those who don't have sex. The same isn't true for teens who "hook up." Researchers found that those who have casual flings get lower grades and have more school-related problems compared with those who abstain."

However, that language is not present in the study itself. At all. It does not use the term committed, nor does it address or define what a committed relationship is or is not. It also does not define or classify intercourse in nonromantic relationships as being about, or not about, "hookups" or "casual flings." McCarthy made clear to me that they expressly avoided that language, in part because it is not at all clear what those terms mean.

What the study does address is sexual intercourse in the contexts of romantic and/or nonromantic relationships, using those terms. The data itself was not collected by the authors of the study, but gathered from other sources. Those sources, in determining which was which, asked participants to self-report what kinds of sexual relationships they were in by only those terms (romantic or not romantic), which was the primary way that status was determined. Determinations were then secondarily made based on agreement or disagreement with a series of statements about interpersonal behaviors/activities and a weighted scale was used for participants answers to those statements about their relationships.

Those statements were:

  • I met my partner’s parents.
  • I told other people that we were a couple.
  • We went out together alone.
  • We held hands.
  • I gave my partner a present.
  • My partner gave me a present.
  • I told my partner that I love him or her.
  • My partner told me that he or she loved me.
  • We thought of ourselves as a couple.
  • We kissed.

There was no mention of "commitment," no questions about length of the relationship, about if someone loves someone or not, aims to marry or make babies with someone or not, not even about sexual exclusivity. The ten criteria in that list strike us as quite sound and age-appropriate questions about adolescent romantic/nonromantic relationships that don't project older adult norms or models unto them.

By all means, for many, some or all of those behaviours often do or can signify feelings of love. However, one can't claim this study finds that love has X impact on sex or grades, since a) besides asking if a statement of love was made, love wasn't asked about and b) the authors did not use that term, but used romantic and nonromantic as terms. McCarthy made clear to me that questions about sex were distinct from those about love. There may very well have been love IN the romantic relationships teens were having and discussing, yet, there may not have been love in them. The same goes for the relationships classified and/or self-reported as non-romantic, too.

This study also can't tell us much, if anything, about the academic impact of "hookups" or "flings," since it doesn't talk about them nor were those terms used in the study, and adults reporting or classifying teen nonromantic relationships are likely projecting or making unwarranted assumptions about teens' nonromantic relationships in doing so. We cannot say what types of romantic or nonromantic relationships intercourse occurred in in the study. All one can state with authority is that the individuals in them classified them as romantic, non-romantic or both and/or did or did not mark relationships as meeting the criteria in the list above. Some of the intercourse reported as non-romantic may well have occurred in "casual sex" contexts like one-night stands. However, some may have occurred in friends-with-benefits scenarios, via open romantic relationships, in relationships pursued as romantic that didn't turn out that way, or in brand-new relationships which the participants did not yet engage in the above behaviours or don't yet classify as romantic, or other possibilities. But to classify the non-romantic sex as being about any one kind of relationship, beyond merely non-romantic, is poor reporting and is not supported by the study.

Ironically, reporting of nonromantic relationships with terminology which dismisses them or gives them a negative implication also does something the authors in the study brought up in the last paragraph of their discussion as both generally problematic and as a potential player in the why of some of the lower academic indexes/outcomes for those having intercourse in nonromantic relationships:

Sexuality is an integral part of the maturation process; pretending that it is otherwise only harms adolescents who engage in normatively sanctioned sex without helping those who do not. At worst, denying the normative dimension of adolescent sex creates unnecessary associations between sexuality and adverse outcomes that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading those who would otherwise engage in sex only within the confines of a romantic relationship to opt instead to explore their sexuality in a more casual way. By creating a normative environment that delegitimizes adolescent sexuality in all contexts, we forego the opportunity to confer moral legitimacy on sexual activity that takes place in the relationship context least likely to disrupt educational progress.

Some reporting and discussion of the findings suggests that big differences were found with academics for young people who had sex in non-romantic contexts and those who either have not had intercourse or who have done so in romantic contexts. But the study and the authors' comments don't appear to make that statement at all. Rather, what they seem to state is that statistically significant differences were NOT found between teens not having intercourse and those who have, but in romantic contexts, and that the same could not be said when comparing those who have had sex exclusively in nonromantic contexts to both of those groups. Those are different statements. From the study:

First, youth who have sexual intercourse in the context of a romantic relationship do not differ significantly on most of the educational experiences and outcomes we examine: only two of eighteen associations are statistically significant (one for females, ever truant, and one for males, college aspirations). Second, the negative educational consequences of sexual intercourse in other relationship contexts occur somewhat more frequently for males. For females, sexual intercourse in both relationship contexts is related to change over time in two outcomes (college aspirations and ever truant), while having sex exclusively in non-romantic relationships is significantly related to change over time in three (ever truant, days truant, and school sanctions). For males, having sex in both types of relationships is associated with five outcomes (college aspirations, school problems, ever truant, school sanctions and dropping out), as is having sex ex exclusively in non-romantic relationships (college aspirations and expectations, ever truant, school sanctions and dropping out).

Collectively, these results suggest that with two exceptions—ever truant (but not days truant) and dropping out—the negative educational consequences typically attributed to sexual intercourse are more modest when sex occurs in romantic relationships; however, these associations are pronounced when it occurs in relationships that conflict with normative views about the appropriate relationship context for sex.

The authors also talk a good deal about how all of this is not likely just about what relationship context intercourse occurs within having an impact because of those relationships, but because of many factors, including cultural views of and approaches to those different contexts. Yet more irony per some of the ways some folks are reporting on the study who clearly, even admittedly, have not actually read it.

This is a biggie: The authors do not ever, in presenting their results, use the word "cause" to connect sex & academic outcomes - they use "relationship" or "association" or "correlation."

This study does NOT show that any kind of sex causes anything per academic outcomes, only that some academic outcomes or attitudes did or did not concurrently occur when teens are also having intercourse or not having intercourse in certain contexts. Something else McCarthy explained to me was that "the GPA and other outcome data are form the subsequent year so they do have temporal order and correct for selection into sex; however,that selection is not random so we can't really talk about cause."

They also make clear that only SOME of the outcomes measured were statistically significant, and that the standard deviation for a lot of those is large, which shows a lot of variation w/in groups. That means that, beyond the problems we've already addressed in doing so, statements like "Teens who have sex outside of romantic relationships will do worse in school" absolutely cannot be made. The authors, in the actual study, appear to state that the findings with statistical significance for males and females were primarily those around truancy, and college aspiration, but that some additional findings for males had more significance. Unless we're misreading the study and the authors' commentary and summaries (something one of the authors, in reading this piece, does not feel we did), the GPA results (grades) which most reporting seems to be focused on does NOT appear to be an area the authors state as having statistical significance.

There are some really interesting things in this study, especially when we move away from trying to make broad, adultist generalizations. One big deal in them? When academic outcomes/goals with teen sexual intercourse were more negative, they were more so for male teens than females. For instance, while compared to those who did not have intercourse in any context, females who had it in nonromantic contexts had GPAs that were only 0.16 points lower than abstinent teens, while male teens who had intercourse in nonromantic contexts had GPAs that were 0.30 points lower than those who have not had sex at all. Findings like this may be one good in-road to help change pervasive cultural scripts and approaches that state or suggest that it's only or primarily young women who may have unwanted or negative impacts with intercourse or other sexual activity, which both leaves young men high and dry and continues to enable framing sex, especially sex in nonromantic contexts, as something which only or solely has the capacity to negatively impact women.

In so many areas, there tend to be greater burdens with any kind of sex for female people, such as with pregnancy and the long-term impact of STIs. In progressive sex education, we don't assume that somehow male people are unburdened emotionally, academically, or otherwise when it comes to sex, and know there are areas in which male people may or do bear higher burdens, but this isn't one we've seen before. Are the differences in those males' self-perception and chosen behaviors, are they about stresses specifically about sex or those relationships, are sexually active males in nonromantic contexts treated different in school by peers or teachers, or is it something else entirely? I have similar questions about the much-greater level of school sanctions found for those who had intercourse in nonromantic contexts.

The study also found that rates of truancy were higher for teens having intercourse in any context of relationship. This was, in fact, the one area which was stated as being clearly statistically significant by the authors, so is probably what we should be talking the most about. An assumption I'd make about that based on what we hear some young people say about their sex lives is that some sexually active teens may be ditching school because they are having sex instead of going to school, particularly if they feel a need or have a need to hide sex from parents and guardians. If that's so, that's something to do more talking about and more study on. Are the rates of truancy for sexually active teens the same for those given that privacy and time for sexual activity at home -- and permission -- when parents are or may be home, as they are for those who are not given that permission or space, and/or who are trying to hide sexual activity from parents and guardians?

In the study findings, females expressing a desire to go to college was highest for those who have had intercourse only in nonromantic contexts, and lower for those who have either had it only in a romantic context or in both contexts. However, females who had intercourse only in nonromantic contexts expected to go to college least, despite being the group who wanted to go the most. I'm not sure what to make of these results, but find them interesting.

Something else that got left out of all the reports on this we saw was address of teens who had intercourse in both romantic and nonromantic contexts. Their results were interesting, too. For example, GPAs for females reporting intercourse in BOTH kinds of relationships were lower than for either group of females reporting intercourse only in romantic relationships or only in nonromantic relationships. What's the deal there?

Lastly, finding out more, and discussing more, about the various contexts and dynamics of nonromantic relationships beyond them merely being reported as nonromantic, or not meeting the criteria for romantic relationships, is important. Are the outcomes the same, for instance, in nonromantic relationships and intercourse where both the participants prefer (rather than merely accept) a nonromantic context, or do they differ? In nonromantic relationships where peers, parents and others were more supportive and accepting of that context, or where those relationships were more included and accepted in sex education, how do the academic -- and other -- outcomes fare?

The prototypical (and very American) cultural conversation about sex in and outside of romantic relationships as good = romantic and bad = nonromantic is, and has long been, problematic for a bunch of reasons and around a whole host of issues. That shortcutting and stereotyping influences awareness and address of, and response to, abuse in romantic relationships hugely. It can support inaccurate thinking about where health and emotional risks can lie (that they only do in nonromantic contexts, but don't in romantic ones); it can make it far more difficult for people in the wide diversity of relationship contexts and models there are to best find, create and choose models that work for them and feel supported in whatever kinds of relationships they choose. It can, as the authors address, isolate those in nonromantic sexual relationships and increase a host of their risks, academically and otherwise.

Poor reporting, the inclination towards being provocative or intellectual laziness should not be taken as indications that this study is to blame or doesn't have things of value to offer, because it's a really interesting and well-done piece of work. It includes some findings young people, parents/guardians and educators should know about and furthers some really important conversation. We're very much looking forward to having more discussion about it with the authors and seeing some reporting that presents the study -- and the young people it's about -- less one-dimensionally.

Scarleteen volunteer Karyn Fulcher also contributed to this piece.


As someone in a social science doctoral program, I applaud you for reading the actual article before reporting on it! As fun as "pop psychology" can be, it misses some of the extremely important nuances. The differences in diction are huge, as is pointing what exactly where the statistically significant results. Thanks so much for posting this!

It is so, so, so, so important to hold the media accountable for such oversimplifications, omissions, or outright misrepresentations.

I can't thank you enough for setting such an awesome example of how to do this well. You set a wonderfully high bar for us. ;)

I agree with the other commenters--great job breaking it down for those of us whose heads were spinning! Sounds like the researchers made some very intentional decisions with their definitions, and that's important to preserve when discussing the outcomes; I think it's great you were able to actually talk to one author for this piece.

I tend to agree with your theory on truancy--parents often assume that keeping kids from having privacy will keep them from the "bad" things when in reality it may just drive them to further, more drastic, lengths to get that privacy. I'm not sure where the solution is for that, but I think it's important to understand the scope of the problem.