The Frontal Cortex

Teens and Sex

You’ve got to feel very sorry for Bristol Palin. The poor teenager isn’t running for political office and yet she’s the subject of two front page stories in the NY Times today. All of a sudden, every talking head on the cable news is wondering how her pregnancy will influence the election. Is this what politics has become?

And yet, this teenage pregnancy is indicative of something: the pitiful failure of abstinence-only sex education. Governor Palin, of course, strongly supports abstinence-only education in the classroom. (She also believes in teaching creationism alongside evolutionary theory, but that’s another matter.) The problem with this belief is that abstinence-only classes don’t work. Here is the Washington Post:

A long-awaited national study has concluded that abstinence-only sex education, a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s social agenda, does not keep teenagers from having sex. Neither does it increase or decrease the likelihood that if they do have sex, they will use a condom.

Why doesn’t abstinence-only education deter teens from having sex? Consider this R-rated experiment, led by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neuroeconomist George Loewenstein. They began by asking twenty-five male undergraduates at UC-Berkeley a series of provocative sexual questions. The first set of questions concerned their sexual preferences. Could they imagine having sex with a 60 year old woman? What about getting sexually excited by contact with an animal? Did they like getting tied up during sex? The next set of questions dealt with sexual morality. Would the male students slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with them? Would they keep trying to have sex after their date said “no”? The final set of questions was about safe sex. Would the men insist on using a condom? Is it safe to have unprotected sex if you “pull out” before ejaculation?

Each male student answered these naughty hypotheticals in two different states of mind. In the first condition, the subjects were told to answer the questions without being aroused. They were supposed to contemplate sex in an un-sexual state of mind. In the second condition, the subjects were shown pornography while answering the questions. (They were alone in their dorm room for this part of the experiment.) When asked in advance, the men didn’t think that being aroused would significantly alter their answers. They assumed that their sexual preferences were relatively immune to such temporary emotional biases.

The men were completely wrong. Their desire to engage in peculiar sexual acts – like being tied up, or getting spanked while having sex – nearly doubled when they were aroused. Their morality was even more malleable: they were three times more likely to commit a sex crimes – such as using a date-rape drugs – when staring at pornographic images. And, of course, being aroused also made them much less likely to use condoms. Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant when they actually had an erection. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”

Recent research suggests that the willpower of adolescents is especially compromised. While the emotional brains of teens are operating at full throttle (those raging hormones don’t help), the mental muscles that check these emotions are still being built. A recent study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards – things like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll – was significantly more active and mature in the adolescent brain than the prefrontal cortex, which helps us resist such temptations. This anatomy helps explain why adolescents are so much more likely engage in risky, impulsive behavior.

The essential lesson, then, is that teens are going to have sex. Even the fear of God isn’t going to stop them. What we need to do is educate them about the risks of sex and teach them how to use condoms and birth control. Pretending we’re more rational and less “sinful” than we actually are only leads to unwanted outcomes.

Comments

  1. #1 asd
    September 2, 2008

    The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”

    They couldn’t resist saying that would do the wrong thing. Sure–unprotected sex is an impulsive decision that requires no forethought (and maybe “date” rape too), but drugging a woman for sex? Come on–that’s something that requires a lot of forethought some of which must take place in an unaroused state.

  2. #2 August
    September 2, 2008
  3. #3 tim
    September 2, 2008

    The problem with holding up Palins daughter as a example of the failure of abstinence based education is that the state of Alaska presently has a comprehensive sex education program and her daughter went through public schools. I have no idea how good the program is but I find it troubling everyone is jumping on this poor girl as an example of a policy failure.

    //before i’m jumped on – totally for complete sex education program

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    September 2, 2008

    Of course, it was the hyperchristian site Covenant News which first (sfaik) offered a headline calling Bristol Palin a slut.

  5. #5 Elizabeth
    September 2, 2008

    I believe there are more teen pregnancies today than a few decades ago when sex was not really discussed in schools.
    Everything has to be discussed in a context.

  6. #6 mens-hormonal-health.com
    September 2, 2008

    Intesting commentary on emotional states, influencing decisions about sex. We should accept our innate urges and educate around them, rather than deny they’re there and teach something that is impracticle.

  7. #7 Anibal
    September 3, 2008

    In relation to political aspect of the post, i think that
    from the perspective of Bristol Plain it is a terrible situation (unintended and undemanded media attention in relation to some private stuff)

    But if we look to this issue from the perspective of his mother, now potential VP, and his ideological credentials this story sounds a little bit cinic and hypocritical. She wants to extend his sexual mores to american people, but in truth she is not a paradigmatic case.

    In relation to the sexual behaviour of teenagers i cannot find any way to prevent sexually trasmited diseases, unwanted pregnancies etc. without the intervention of an open and demystify education about sexual behaviour and its consequences.

  8. #8 Apashiol
    September 3, 2008

    In the discussion about these findings when I see metaphors like ‘raw willpower’ and ‘mental muscle’ it makes me wonder if it also wouldn’t be helpful to get away from talking about what goes on in our brains using such terminology. Subjectively, I realise that in resisting errant impulses I imagine the consequences of actions and marshal the resulting feelings to counterbalance those impulses. It’s very personal. There is a real disconnect for me when I hear willpower talked about as if it were some separate faculty; and also using terms like muscle.
    I think about how different metaphors arose in understanding ourselves as when the metaphor of clockwork was used and how today that just seems so unwieldy and wonder if people who think of themselves as more machinelike or mechanical find self-control harder? Do metaphors which presuppose an agent give one greater freedom to choose?

  9. #9 sdg
    September 3, 2008

    Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant when they actually had an erection. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong.

    while you conclude by saying that more education is needed, don’t the arguments you present seem to suggest that it doesn’t matter? in the quote above, the subjects were well informed about the benefits of using protection but it didn’t matter. i think that abstinence only education is ridiculous but it seems that some of the information presented here suggests that there is nothing that can be done to prevent the risky behavior.

  10. #10 Dave
    September 4, 2008

    What we need to do is educate them about the risks of sex and teach them how to use condoms and birth control. Pretending we’re more rational and less “sinful” than we actually are only leads to unwanted outcomes.

    Are you being intentionally ironic by juxtaposing these two sentences?

  11. #11 gustav
    September 6, 2008

    Interesting post!
    I can’t help wonder: what kind of pornography was on display? Most of mainstream pornpgraphy shows women as quite passive objects of male desire (and this is not what I want to discuss!), and it can’t be too far-fetched to assume that this is part of what makes it easier for the men to make the more questionable moral decisions, since women are the ones who’ll suffer the consequences of the acts imagined.

  12. #12 Greg
    September 7, 2008

    I think you would have to be very careful about the effects of the pornography on the answers as opposed to the effects of arousal. Another way to put what the commenter above said in a slightly better light for the males involved might be to say that the pornography brought the subjects into a fantasy world that then made their judgments less grounded in reality. Causing a state of arousal by more realistic means might well lead to answers closer to the original. I think the arousal is possibly fundamentally different when caused by fantasy (especially if that’s a visual representation that has little or nothing to do with how real biological sex happens and basically triggers a learned, pavlovian response) than when caused by real circumstances where there may also be feelings of affection or some sort of human connection.

    I may have strayed into armchair psychology here, but that aspect of the study struck me as potentially flawed and was not mentioned in the study, even though they speculate on a number of other limitations.

  13. #13 Lena
    September 26, 2008

    I would have liked to see how/if the results differ for female students.

  14. #14 güzel sözler
    February 28, 2009

    I believe there are more teen pregnancies today than a few decades ago when sex was not really discussed in schools.
    Everything has to be discussed in a context. Bye..