Sexy Teen Trend Data

I’m an admirer of Caitlin Flanagan’s skills as a writer of prose, and I like that she likes to take on topics that others shy away from. But it’s always bothered me that the Atlantic lets her write articles that, under guise of book reviewing or some such, make sweeping statements of social trends without any kind of empirical backing or even recognition of the possibility that assertions can be verified or not through data. Fortunately, for the first time ever this blog has an intern, Ryan McNeely, currently pursuing an MA at Princeton and conversant with research methods and facts in a way that Flanagan isn’t. I asked him to poke around at her latest article which posits that very young teen girls are spearheading a cultural counterrevolution against a burgeoning hookup revolution. Not surprisingly, there seem to be some problems.

Flanagan posits, for example, that the reactions of liberal mothers of women born circa 1961 “to the kinds of sexual experiences that so many American girls are now having would have been horror and indignation.” Of course hypothetical reactions are hard to predict, but here’s CDC data (PDF) on teen sexual health outcomes since the mid-seventies:


And a couple of quotes on trends during the period when today’s teen girls have been growing up:

— “During 1991–2007, the prevalence of sexual experience decreased 12% overall, from 54.1% to 47.8%. Logistic regression analyses indicated a significant linear decrease overall and among female, male, 9th-grade, 10th-grade, 11th-grade, 12th-grade, black, and white students.”

— “During 1991–2007, the prevalence of multiple sex partners decreased 20%, from 18.7% to 14.9%.”

Flanagan also asserts that attitudes have shifted against virginity very recently:

Two divergent cultural tracks regarding girls and sexuality have developed in this country. At one extreme, in not-insignificant numbers, you have evangelical Christians who have decided to demand that their children—and in particular their daughters—remain virgins until marriage. Until very recently, this would not have even needed to be put into words; it was the shared assumption of most Americans, and everything in the culture—from mainstream entertainment to religious doctrine to the most casual remarks passed from mother to daughter—supported it.

According to David Harding and Christopher Jencks “Changing Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex” this change in fact occurred in the 1970s:

In 1969, more than 75 percent of American adults with an opinion on premarital sex said it was wrong. By the 1980s only 33-37 percent of Americans said that premarital sex was either “always” or “almost always” wrong.

Attitudes aside, the CDC’s document “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008” would have provided a wealth of information to Flanagan about actual trends in actual teen conduct, had she been interested in looking it up. For example, during this period of burgeoning hookup culture fewer teens are having sex:


72 percent of teen girls report that they were “going steady” with the first person they had sex with. An additional three percent say they were cohabiting, engaged, or married.

Faced with an imaginary trend toward promiscuity, Flanagan asks rhetorically “Is it any wonder that so many girls are binge-drinking and reporting, quite candidly, that this kind of drinking is a necessary part of their preparation for sexual activity?”

In the real world, however, the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that boys are more likely to binge drink than girls, and although this gap is narrowing, “overall past month consumption among 12- to 17-year old males and females has been declining.” So we have a made-up trend toward hookups explained by a made-up trend toward binge drinking!

Obviously, this data I’ve cited is perhaps open to some criticisms or alternate interpretations. But Flanagan doesn’t dispute it, doesn’t cite alternate data, and doesn’t even seem to be aware of the possibility of discussing social trends in terms of evidence rather than assertion.