A new study shows that having sex may actually reduce teenage misbehavior — but only if teens are in relationships.
Psychologist Paige Harden and her colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin looked at pairs of twins in order to control for genetic and environmental factors. They found that teenagers who were having sex within a relationship were less likely to display "antisocial behavior" than those who were abstinent. But teens who were having casual sex were more likely to act up. The study authors speculate that "teens who spend more one-on-one time with their boyfriends or girlfriends, and less time with their friends, have fewer opportunities to get into trouble."
To put it another way, teenagers who are having sex may be too busy to sniff glue behind the band room — or they may have discovered that sex is more fun. Teens having casual sex may simply not be doing it as often, leaving more time for misbehavior. It's also possible that having a boyfriend or girlfriend — as long as the relationship is healthy — is good for teenagers, providing them with a source of consistent emotional support as well as sexytimes. It would be interesting to see whether teens who are in relationships but aren't having sex show comparably low levels of antisocial behavior.
The research gives rise to a lot of followup questions, but its fundamental finding shouldn't be all that shocking. Back in 2007, Harden conducted another twin study finding that, contrary to previous claims, "there was no positive relationship between age of first sex and delinquency." At the time, she said her research "really calls into question the usefulness of abstinence education for preventing behavior problems and questions the bigger underlying assumption that all adolescent sex is always bad." Of course, teens shouldn't have sex before they feel ready, and they need to learn how to practice safer sex and seek help if a partner is pressuring or abusive. But it's time to lay to rest the idea that having sex automatically turns teenagers into drug-snorting, knife-fighting hellions doomed to a life of crime.