The Kids Are Alright: Why Hooking Up Won't Damage Our Youth

We've become accustomed to hearing about how "hook up culture" is ruining kids today. But a new study shows that casual sex - wait for it - is totally OK. And not necessarily bad for your mental health.

Maggie Koerth-Baker explores the ins-and-outs of the teen sex scene over at Boing Boing. Like us, she's pretty sick of hearing about slutty teens and their dangerous behavior, but a study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health suggests that people who have casual sex are just as happy and healthy as those who have sex within a committed relationship. The study, which surveyed 1,300 Minnesotans in their late teens and early 20s, also found that most young people were having sex within a committed relationship, yet many of them had, at some point or another, engaged in casual sex.

According to the University of Minnesota study, only 8% of respondents reported their last sexual partner as being of the "casual" type, and just 12% who were having sex in a non-exclusive relationship. Is this shocking? Not exactly. As an early-twenty something person myself, this sounds just about right. American teens, and twenty-somethings, have always dated, and hooked up, and the members of the older generations have always had some curmudgeon-y phrases to describe the slow decline of morality among the youth. However, Koerth-Baker points out that the media often makes it sound like teens today are going wild with hormones, rampantly humping each other and spreading STDs all over the place. This is partially because questions phrased "have you ever..." on a survey often get misinterpreted, reported as though a single incident were the norm, not the exception. Koerth-Baker spoke with several experts on teen sex, who generally agreed that the teen-sex panic is vastly overblown:

"I think people stereotype teenagers sometimes," said John Santelli, M.D., a pediatrician and adolescent health specialist who chairs the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "I don't think hookup situations are the norm for young people. Serial monogamy is very common among youth. The 20% in this study who weren't in committed relationships, I'd be willing to bet that many were between relationships, or in the process of forming one."

So, to recap, most teens aren't having loads of random hook ups, but the kids that have engaged in casual sex are generally pretty normal. Well, just as long as you're of a certain age. Sexually active teens between the ages of 14-17 are more likely to engage in other risky behavior, but this probably isn't caused by sex:

"Young people who are risk takers, more non-conventional, or challenging of social norms, they're more likely to have sex between the ages of 14 and 17. They're also more likely to smoke cigarettes, try alcohol, use drugs, be less attached to school, drop out, etc.," [adolescent sexuality researcher Dr. Douglas Kirby] said. "Again, it's not the case that sex leads to all those things. It's that these people who are less connected to family and school are engaging in a wide variety of risk-taking behaviors and sex is just a part of that."

Stop the presses: casual sex doesn't cause kids to turn to drugs or alcohol, nor does it make them particularly depressed! It's easy to blame everything on sexual activity, but for many teens, sex is just part of a much larger picture. The emphasis we place on sex has turned it - wrongly - into a barometer for everything that is wrong with a person, or even within a relationship. Sexual habits and proclivities may be part of our identities, but it is in no way the most meaningful piece, and this is true for both adults and teens. The youth of Generation Y are much like that of Generation X, some are risk takers, some are purity-vow makers, but despite widespread panic, most of them are doing just fine.

Sex, Science, And Statistics [Boing Boing]