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Telling Teens “Just Wait” Might Not Be As Effective As You Think

One of the common assumptions among many adults is that teens and young people don’t have the capacity to make good decisions, especially when it comes to sex. And there is some correlation between adolescent sexual initiation (ASI) and risky adult sexual behavior (RASB), so a lot of people figure that means that teens who have sex will grow up into adults who take more sexual risks. This has prompted a lot of people to tell young people to “just wait”, but it seems that it’s more complex than that.

The authors of the recently-published paper Testing the Role of Adolescent Sexual Initiation in Later-Life Sexual Risk Behavior: A Longitudinal Twin Design took data from the Minnesota Twin Family Study, a database of 1,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins who’ve been tracked since the age of 11. They found 158 cases of twins who became sexually active at different times, using age 16 as the cut-off for “early sexual initiation” and looked at their sexual risk behaviors at 24 (defined as one-night stands and booty calls, sexual behavior while drunk or on drugs, or if they’d had a pregnancy before the age of 20). And they found that they didn’t differ on rates of pregnancy or risk-taking at 24.

In their abstract, they suggest that the relationship between adoescent sexual initiation and risky adult sexual behavior may be “better explained by common genetic or environmental risk factors than as a causal effect.” In other words, the idea that telling young people to wait to encourage them to take fewer risks as adults simply isn’t true. As has been said many times before, correlation is not causation.

Granted, if someone waits longer to have sex, then their risk over that period of time is reduced, so I’m certainly not suggesting that we tell young people that anything goes. Rather, I think we need better sex education to help them unpack some of the things that prompt them to engage in risky behaviors so they can develop new skills. And we need to address some of the other factors that influence  and increase sexual risk-taking. But it seems clear that a simplistic “keep it in your pants/keep your legs crossed” approach just doesn’t do much to affect the real causes, and young people deserve better than that.


Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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