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Rethinking Teen Sex

By Tim Brady

A new study by assistant professor Ann Meier has made waves with its fresh look at adolescent sexuality

Ann Meier
Almost half of American adolescents report having had sex by the time they graduate from highschool — a fact that has raised concern among adults, and parents of teens in particular, about the emotional and physical risks and perils, not to mention the cultural and moral issues.

Noting the fever pitch of public concern, Ann Meier set out to discover what adolescents themselves think about the matter of teen sex. What, she asked, are the real consequences of sexual precocity?

To fully understand Meier’s motivation, we must rewind to 1996, when the federal government decided to do something about the increasing number of sexually active teens. Congress passed welfare reform legislation tying federal funding to abstinence education and a curriculum that teaches the negative physical and psychological consequences of non-marital sex — a sort of Just Say No approach. Meier was surprised by the assumption that non-marital sex has negative psychological consequences. The physical risks — unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, for example — were obvious. Yet, Meier says, “I wasn’t too sure about the psychological effects. I hadn’t seen any research on the matter."

At the time, Meier was a graduate student, searching for a subject for her doctoral dissertation. She decided to fill in the blanks in the literature, using data culled from a nationwide survey on adolescent health issues. Meier looked especially at the mental health consequences of teen sex, using measures of self-esteem and depression. The results of her work, published last May in The American Journal of Sociology, put her in the media spotlight. The New York Times showcased her study in a June article.

“The highlight of what I found is that while a small percentage of teenagers — mostly young girls in uncommitted relationships — have some changes in mental health after first sex, the great majority of teens don’t," says Meier.

Meier’s study, “Adolescent Sexual Activity and Well- Being" (funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Development), examined psychological changes in over 8,000 teenagers surveyed between grades 7 and 12 for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Meier looked at before and after data for the more than 1,200 students who acknowledged having their first sexual experiences between the first year of the survey, 1995, and the second year, 1996.

What Meier discovered was that about 15 percent showed evidence of what she terms “a moderate increase of depressive symptoms." These were primarily students whose first sexual experience came before the average age of sexual activity for the group (14 for boys, 15 for girls); they were more often girls than boys; and they were mostly young people who were not deeply involved with their sexual partners.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the study was that the number of negatively affected teenagers was so low. Part of the argument for the abstinence legislation that prompted Meier’s interest was the assumption that early sex was likely to lead to psychological difficulties. To be sure, some newly sexually active teens do indeed experience difficulties. Yet for the sizeable majority who do not, many complex variables come into play. In the end, Meier’s research suggests, the assumption of negative mental health consequences for all sexually active teens is on shaky ground.

The legislation was re-enacted in 2002 and is set for congressional review this year, giving Meier’s work a currency that only adds to its importance. “The larger story here," says Meier, “is that the sorts of effects [on adolescent mental health] envisioned by the creators of the legislation just are not proven. To legislate a curriculum based on those assumptions is a little irresponsible, or at the very least, unwarranted [by the data]." A more nuanced curriculum would not promote sexual activity but would address individual differences, better meet the needs of the most vulnerable teens, and ensure that those who are sexually active understand the consequences and practice safe sex.

Meier sees what she calls “a hint" of a national trend toward more comprehensive sex education “that would allow for messages that apply to teens with more diverse sets of sexual circumstances." The state board of education in Kansas, for instance, recently voted to move from abstinence-only sex education to more comprehensive teaching — a move Meier applauds. “One thing my research suggests is a diversity of experience, and it would be best served by broader forms of education."

Awakening

That Meier’s work in sociology would be inspired by issues of public policy is perhaps not surprising given her background. After growing up in tiny Sartell, Minnesota, Meier went off to George Washington University, where she thought she would study political science. The campus, just off Pennsylvania Avenue to the west of the White House, put her in the heart of the District of Columbia, a city of stark contrasts, whose residents — roughly 60 percent African American and 21 percent below the poverty line — live in the shadow of some of the world’s most powerful institutions.

“I was playing softball on the national mall one afternoon, surrounded by all of these national monuments," says Meier. “I remember stopping for a moment and thinking that I’d come quite a way from Sartell." The pervasive aura of history and power was enough to turn a small-town student’s head, and to turn her toward a career combining social science research and civic engagement. In her first year at George Washington, Meier took a course in urban sociology. She also signed up for the university crew team and started a job at a D.C. food shelf, where she dished meals for homeless people. These seemingly unrelated activities would play off each other in curious and unexpected ways and nudge her toward the career that eventually would bring her back to Minnesota and to the University. Her early mornings on the Potomac — rowing beside ex-preppies with sporty nicknames and trust funds — contrasted sharply with her shifts slinging hash for the dispossessed, prompting a deepening interest in issues of social stratification that would carry her through her undergraduate years and beyond.

Following a post-graduation stint in D.C. at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Meier moved to San Diego, California, with her soon-to-behusband, Seth Werner (now a lecturer in the University’s Carlson School). “I was finding myself that year," Meier says, but “also found myself broke on the beach." So she left the beaches behind for the Midwest, where she received a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin– Madison in 2003 and started making her own waves with her research on teens and the life course.

Currently in the third year of a five-year early career development grant from the NICHD, Meier is studying relationship development for adolescents — both romantic relationships and relationships between adolescents and their parents — in the transition to adulthood. Her colleagues are waiting to see how Meier’s next breaker will crash against prevailing assumptions about adolescent development.