Teenage Kicks

26th August, 2006

The Undercover Economist – FT Magazine

“Parents, brace yourselves.” With those words, Oprah Winfrey introduced news of a teenage oral-sex craze in the US. In Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan wrote “The moms in my set are convinced – they’re certain; they know for a fact – that all over the city, in the very best schools, in the nicest families, in the leafiest neighborhoods, 12- and 13-year-old girls are performing oral sex on as many boys as they can.”

Are they right? National statistics on teen fellatio have only recently been collected, but the trend seems to be real. Professor Jonathan Zenilman, an expert in sexually transmitted infections at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, reports that both the adults and the teenagers who come to his clinic are engaging in much more oral sex than in 1990. For men as recipients it’s up from about half to 75-80 per cent; for women, it’s risen from about 25 per cent to 75-80 per cent.

In some quarters that might be regarded as progress, but how you feel about it probably depends on whether you are a teenager or a parent of teenagers. I am neither but, as an economist, I feel uniquely qualified to opine on why it is happening.

Schoolchildren are now bombarded with information about the risks of sex, particularly HIV/Aids. Oral sex can be safer than penetrative sex: it dramatically reduces the risk of contracting HIV and reduces the effects of some other sexually transmitted infections (although you can still pick up herpes, warts and thrush). An infection that might have made a girl infertile instead gives her a sore throat.

The rest is basic economics. When the price of Coca-Cola rises, rational cola-lovers drink more Pepsi. When the price of penetrative sex rises, rational teenagers seek substitutes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that even as the oral-sex epidemic rages, the Centre for Disease Control, a US government agency, reports that the percentage of teenage virgins has risen by more than 15 per cent since the beginning of the 1990s. Those who are still having sex have switched to using birth-control methods that will also protect them from sexually transmitted infections. Use of the contraceptive pill is down by nearly a fifth, but use of condoms is up by more than a third. The oral-sex epidemic is a rational response to a rise in the price of the alternative.

Now this is a glib explanation. A real economist would want a tighter hypothesis and serious data to back it up. That economist might well be Thomas Stratmann, who with the law professor Jonathan Klick has pushed the idea of the rational teenage sex drive. Their hypothesis is that if teenagers really did think about the consequences of their actions, they would have less risky sex if the cost of risky sex went up. They discovered a very specific source of that higher risk: in some US states there are abortion-notification laws, which mean that teenagers can’t get an abortion without their parents being informed. If teenagers are rational, such laws would discourage risky sex amongst teens, relative to adults.

Continued at ft.com

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