Is Hooking Up Hurting Our Heads?

Photo via foundphotoslj on Flickr.

Photo via foundphotoslj on Flickr.

A new report, entitled “Sex and School: Adolescent Sexual Intercourse and Education,” is making huge waves in headlines. The study, completed by Bill McCarthy of the University of California Davis and Eric Grodsky of the University of Minnesota (two sociologists, I might add), collected data on youth intercourse, romantic and nonromantic, and youth performance in school.

Some research-style background: the study looked at school attachment, high school GPA, college aspiration, college expectations, problems in school, ever truant, the number of days truant, school sanctions (suspended/expelled), and dropping out. The research was completed with the intention of describing intercourse- which the researchers believe means the survey was primarily completed by those involved in the act of vaginal intercourse. Participants were allowed to self-identify as being in romantic or nonromantic relationships, and were responsible for making the distinction.

If you’ve read some mainstream coverage of the report, you’re probably very confounded by the data: people in relationships and people who abstain from sex do just fine in school (or, at least, do not find that intercourse disturbs their existing patterns academically) and people who hook up simply don’t? That can’t be!

Well, you are right. It isn’t.

Oliver Wang of The Atlantic explains where the coverage went wrong concisely in his article on the report:

Here’s an age-old beef between scientists (social or otherwise) and journalists: the former tend to be exceptionally careful about drawing conclusions from their research. It’s one thing to argue, “Data X and Data Y show a relationship,” it’s another thing altogether to actually argue, “Data X is the cause of Data Y.” This is what’s known as the correlation vs. causality distinction and it is absolutely fundamental to any kind of responsible research methodology and discussion.

The difference between a correlation and a cause may seem minor- after all, why not jump the bridge of conclusions and just make a statement, already?! – but it isn’t. Social scientists would not claim something was a cause if really, data was just correlated. Similarly, they would never call a cause a correlation if it was clear that causality existed. Such is science: you say what is scientifically and methodologically true.

And this is why everyone should actually be reading this report – instead of the coverage. (And why the journalists should pick up a copy, too.) Heather Corrina’s coverage of the report for Scarleteen elaborates on that fine distinction, and why the scientists themselves are not ready to make claims, about hooking up or its effects on student’s academic performance:

This study also can’t tell us much about the academic impact of “hookups” or “flings,” since it doesn’t talk about them nor were those terms used in the study, and adults reporting or classifying teen nonromantic relationships as such may be projecting or making unwarranted assumptions about teens’ nonromantic relationships in doing so. We cannot say what types of romantic or nonromantic relationships intercourse occurred in in the study. All one can state with authority is that the individuals in them either classified them as romantic or non-romantic and/or did or did not mark relationships as meeting the criteria in the list above. Some of the intercourse reported as non-romantic may well have occurred, and probably did occur, in “casual sex” contexts like one-night stands. However, some may have occurred in friends-with-benefits scenarios, via open romantic relationships, or in brand-new relationships which the participants did not yet engage in the above behaviours or don’t yet classify as romantic, or other possibilities. But to classify the non-romantic sex as being about any one kind of relationship, beyond merely non-romantic, is poor reporting and is not supported by the study.

The authors do not ever, in presenting their results, use the word “cause” to connect sex & academic outcomes – they use “relationship” or “association” or “correlation.” This study does NOT show that any kind of sex causesanything to do with academic outcomes, only that some academic outcomes or attitudes do or do not occur when teens are also having intercourse or not having intercourse in certain contexts. Something else McCarthy explained to me was that “the GPA and other outcome data are form the subsequent year so they do have temporal order and correct for selection into sex; however,that selection is not random so we can’t really talk about cause.”

The truth about hooking up and school is that nobody knows how hooking up will effect our performance in the classroom, because that isn’t what this study was about. But in the coverage of the piece, it has become obvious that preconceived notions about sexuality and relationships are present in the pens of journalists.

I may not be a scientist, but I’d like to make some suggestions based on the findings of this report: get some, and get smart.

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