Correlation is not Causation

Okay, it’s been gnawing at me all week.  I have to write about Ross Douthat’s column.

First of all, the data I read indicated that this slide in number of teens that have had sex started happening in 1988.  The current conservative values had not taken hold of sex education at that point; in fact (and I remember this very well, as these were the years I was having sex ed), 1988 is around when people started taking AIDS seriously as a public health crisis.  I remember, because when I was in fourth grade (1990-1991), they decided to move our sex ed introduction up a year so that they could talk to us about AIDS.  We then also had our regularly scheduled sex ed in fifth grade, which covered more of the puberty stuff and less of the mechanical stuff, and then again in middle school at least once, and then again in freshman and junior years of high school.

And you know what they talked to us about all the time?


This is a penis.  This is a vagina.  Use a condom.  This is your brain.  This is your brain on drugs.  Use a condom.  This is consent.  This is non-consent.  (Yes, we talked about date rape!)  Use a condom.  This is where the eggs hang out.  This is where the sperm are made.  Use a condom.  Abstinence is the only way to 100% guarantee that you won’t get pregnant or get an STD (I know, they’re STIs now).  Use a condom.  This is the rhythm method.  It doesn’t work.  Use a condom.  This is the pill.  This is Norplant.  This is an IUD.  Use a condom.  This is what childbirth looks like.  Use a condom.  When you go out with a bunch of friends, have a condom in your purse/pocket.  When you go out with the boy/girl you really like, have a condom in your purse/pocket.  Keep condoms in your nightstand.  Here is a banana.  This is an optimistic vision of a penis.  Here’s how you put a condom on it.  Let’s practice.  Blindfolded.  Use a condom.  You’re not ready to have sex if you don’t love the person, if you feel uncomfortable, and most especially, if you DON’T HAVE A CONDOM.  Use a condom.  No glove, no love.  No sleeve, no, Steve.  Anal sex does not protect you from STDs.  Oral sex does not protect you from STDs.  Use a condom.I think the final exam was, “If I’m going to have sex, I should a) use a condom, b) use a condom, or c) use a condom.”

We saw graphic pictures of what untreated STDs looked like.  We got a LOT of information about AIDS, which was particularly frightening.  We got to see the infamous “Miracle of Life” video in which tiny cameras inserted into a woman’s and a man’s body captured both conception and childbirth.  We all vowed to become nuns.  We got a lot of information and some scare tactics, and a lot of, abstinence is the only guarantee, but the next best thing is a condom.

I think my sex education was terrific, comparatively speaking.  Our teachers were usually pretty funny and relaxed and non-judgmental.  They solicited our questions.  They talked about social issues surrounding sex and relationships, not just mechanical stuff.  They neither made us feel like we were asexual beings who should remain so as long as possible, nor like we were just horny dogs who couldn’t help ourselves.  And we watched Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex but were Afraid to Ask. I also have to say, as a sidenote, that it’s a good idea to have co-ed sex ed classes, at least in high school.  That way, at the very least, no female in that class will have sex with any male in that class for the duration.

And it seems to me that, if the drop off in having sex started in 1988, it might be due more to actual, good sex ed than the lack thereof.  Then again, that’s just correlation, not causation.  It’s all just speculation.  But my speculation is no less valid.

I’m also a bit confused by the study – why is the age range 15-24?  Isn’t that a little too broad?  I mean, major life changes happen between 15-24 (like, for instance, reaching the age of consent).  And frankly, I think most people who commit themselves to waiting for marriage to have sex get married before the age of 24. What if the preponderance of 24-year-old virgins is a symptom of massive, generational insecurities about body and sexual performance resulting from our pornified pop culture?  Or what if it is a symptom of a lack of acceptable marital partners for all the teens wanting to wait?  Then this isn’t good news at all!

I am glad that Ross Douthat acknowledges that historically, there has never been a time where everyone waited.  But then he goes on about how much better it was in 1950, where at least, if you were jumping the gun, you were jumping the gun with the person you were going to marry eventually.  Or with a person you thought you could marry eventually.  Ah, rosier times.

Never mind that, for women, the stigma associated with not waiting was rather extraordinary.  Never mind that the couples that got married in the fifties and sixties led to the divorce boom of the 1970s, either by divorcing themselves, or by providing such an unworkable example of marriage that their children divorced.  (I know that’s not exactly why the divorce boom happened.  But it’s part of the mystery to me of how conservatives can idealize the ’50s so much.  It was only a decade.  Lots of people stay married for a decade and then divorce.  Lots of people – most, even – live through more than one decade.  It’s not like it was a whole generation or two living like that for their whole lives; it was approximately a ten-year span, and then it all fell apart.  Rather spectacularly.)  Or that the housewives of the fifties and sixties were responsible for the booming sales of psychiatric drugs.  And their children led a cultural revolution so that they wouldn’t have to have the same lives as their parents.  As long as most people were having sex only in serious, committed relationships, and as long as the women who didn’t, or who were mistaken about how serious and committed their relationships were, were properly shamed for it, things were awesome.

Then there’s the link to happiness, especially for women.  Again, correlation, not causation.  But seriously, Ross Douthat, do you think there might be reasons that women who have fewer partners are happier?  Like, for instance, that women who have sex with many partners are still shamed as sluts?  Could female happiness have drifted downward since the sexual revolution because the feminist revolution is not done yet?  So now women have to simultaneously be earth mother goddesses, perfect sex objects, high earners, and in-charge housekeepers?  It couldn’t be that kind of pressure, rather than having more sex with more partners, that makes women less happy?

I’m also always suspicious of studies about happiness.  What do you mean, happy?  How are you determining it?  Is it self-reported?  Happiness is such a nebulous concept; I don’t find attempts to quantify it persuasive at all.  I have this same problem with studies claiming to figure out whether having kids makes you happier or not.  Like, how can you tell, and why is that a determining factor in whether you have them?

Really, all Ross Douthat says in the column is that conservatives will read all data with a conservative lens, and liberals will read all data with a liberal lens.  There’s nothing really there about teens and sex or women and sex that is all that generalizable.


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