Researchers at Ohio State University garnered little attention in February when they found that youngsters who lose their virginity earlier than their peers are more likely to become juvenile delinquents. So obvious and well established was the contribution of early sex to later delinquency that the idea was already part of the required curriculum for federal “abstinence only” programs.
There was just one problem: It is probably not true. Other things being equal, a more probing study has found, 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.
That new analysis, a reworking of the same data the Ohio team used, is one of several recent instances in which a more precise parsing of data has begun to turn long-standing societal presumptions on their head. By bringing evidence to bear on complex social issues, these studies are forcing individuals and policymakers to rethink such hot-button topics as the benefits of breast-feeding, the risks of teen child-bearing and, in the latest example, the harms long presumed to result from teen sex.
Like many of the newer studies, the latest one — led by Paige Harden, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — used the powerful techniques of behavioral genetics. The field specializes in studies on twins, research that can help tell whether behavioral traits are the result of genes or the social environment, and that has periodically stirred controversy when it has focused on the genetic underpinnings of criminality and intelligence.
But the specialty’s analytic methods can also help tell whether one behavior, such as early sex, is merely correlated with or actually causes a second behavior that is often found with it, such as delinquency. If two behaviors often exist in the same people but are found not to be connected by cause and effect, then a third factor is likely to be causing both.
That kind of finding can help identify better targets for prevention efforts, experts say.
“Behavioral geneticists have long sought to establish causal links between genes and complex behaviors. So it’s fascinating to see them use the tools of their trade to dispute widely held beliefs” about the social roots of some of those behaviors, said Erik Parens, a senior research scholar who has tracked the field intensively at the Hastings Center, a Garrison, N.Y., science and ethics think tank.