The XX Factor

Sex, High School Boys, and the Laws of Supply and Demand

A doctoral student in economics at the University of Pennsylvania is examining teenage sex habits in the context of the laws of supply and demand, and he’s discovered something that should upend the way we talk about teen pregnancy. According to Penn’s Arts & Sciences magazine , Seth Richards has analyzed national data on the sex habits of high school students and found that, when it comes to the age at which boys and girls first have sex, boys are far more influenced by what their peers are doing and by the number of available sex partners than are girls.

Richards concludes that “boys seem to be more susceptible to these social mechanisms, whether it’s the norms among their same-gender peers or the availability of partners. To the extent that people are thinking about interventions that work through social mechanisms, they should consider specifically how they’re targeting boys.”

This is striking because our society tends to emphasize the female’s role in sexual matters. In part, this may be practical-a teenage girl who becomes pregnant often winds up more responsible for the child than the boy with whom she had sex. But the emphasis also stems from a religious perspective that exaggerates the importance of female chastity (and downplays the benefits of contraception). You don’t see many purity balls for boys.

And there is also that pervasive cultural notion that boys will be boys but girls should know better. At the American Prospect ‘s Web site, Monica Potts describes the bizarrely-named “No Wedding, No Womb” blogger campaign, an attempt to “raise awareness about low marriage rates in the black community,” as more concerned with telling black women how to behave than improving the lives of children. Potts quotes a campaign blogger , who writes that the black community needs to practice more abstinence : “No one can be better at that than the keeper of the vagina castle, the black woman.” Yikes. I don’t even know what to do with that metaphor.

If Richards is right, it may be that all this time we’ve been directing our efforts at the wrong gender.

Photograph of kissing teenagers by KoS for Wikimedia Commons.