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Friday, May 3, 2002

By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

The April 23 edition of the New York Times reported on a study, conducted by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine and published in a recent issue of the journal, Pediatrics, which turned up some interesting findings on the relationship between self-esteem and sexual activity among teenagers. The study was based on a follow-up survey of 188 ninth-graders in the Indianapolis area who had reported that they were virgins in the original survey, taken when they were in seventh grade. Girls who had reported high levels of self-esteem earlier were about 3 times more likely to report that they had remained virgins by ninth grade than girls with low self-esteem. Conversely, boys who reported high levels of self-esteem were 2.4 times more likely to report being sexually active.

The study results are only as reliable as the responses of the 12-16 year olds surveyed, of course. But it is consistent-at least as far as the girls are concerned-with other studies suggesting a link between positive self image and the decision to delay sexual initiation. It is probably wise to allow for a certain degree of fibbing on the part of survey respondents and for the presence of other factors that effect self-esteem, not to mention the somewhat subjective nature of the concept of self-esteem. Nevertheless, the results may have something to tell us about the persistence of certain differences in boys and girls. For example, it would appear that, 1) for boys, sexual experience-or at least the appearance of it-is associated with high self-esteem; and 2) for girls, chastity-or the appearance of it-is associated with high self-esteem. Some would say that this confirms the persistence of double standards. That is, boys like to brag about sexual conquest; girls are more likely to feel ashamed of having lost their virginity. Those who insist that gender differences are merely a matter of how girls and boys are taught to relate to one another would say that this news is discouraging. To them, it says that we have a long way to go before girls and boys learn to treat each other equally and to be equally responsible about sex. Unfortunately, the definition of “responsibility,” according to this view, usually encompasses instruction about “safe sex” practices, such as the correct way to use a condom.

Another, perhaps more positive, view-let’s call it an argument from human nature-says that boys and girls think about sex differently to some extent because they are innately different, not merely because they have been socialized that way. Further, such differences tend to protect both girls and boys. On a very basic level they insure that males will pursue females and perpetuate the human race and that females will be selective about the circumstances under which they choose to have babies. On a more complex emotional and physical level, those differences-particularly girls’ natural modesty-guard both boys and girls against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the emotional chaos too often associated with out-of-wedlock sex and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Indeed, according to this view, abstinence outside of marriage is the only authentic “safe sex.”

If our primary aim is increasing self esteem, then, based on the results of this study it would appear that encouraging abstinence is best for girls, while encouraging sexual experimentation is best for boys. Yet “self-esteem” may not be the most reliable measure of the effectiveness of any given approach. As demonstrated by Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics in his study for the Rowntree Foundation, the most reliable research indicates that high self-esteem is as likely as not to be associated with undesirable outcomes-delinquent behavior, including violent crime; smoking; racial prejudice-problems that tend to harm others. Low self esteem is more likely to be associated with problems that harm the individual himself-depression, suicide and suicidal thoughts, eating disorders. Juvenile delinquents, in fact, often have a rather high opinion of themselves.

Given the protective benefits of abstinence for both girls and boys, we should do whatever we can to encourage it. Given the uncertain nature of “self-esteem” as a measure of the desirability of a course of action, it might be best to take it with a grain of salt.

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