The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fall
2009

A Gender Gap Feminists Overlook


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


While fretting about every perceived gender inequality in employment, education, and sports, the politically correct crowd seems oblivious to the gender gap that arises from the consequences of premarital sex. Typical is sociologist Ann Meier of the University of Minnesota, whose study documents the heightened risk of depressive symptoms among teenage girls upon losing their virginity outside of marriage, but who nonetheless downplays her finding because the majority of all teens in her sample that had lost their virginity during the study did not report higher levels of depression.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Meier studied a sample of more than 8,500 teens who were virgins when first interviewed in 1994–95, of which more than 1,200 had lost their virginity by the follow-up interview a year or two later. In her first round of tests, Meier found a statistically significant correlation between higher levels of depression among teens “overall” that experienced “first sex,” relative to those who remained virgins. In addition, she found significant links with depressive symptoms after first sex among female teens relative to male teens; among teens that lost their virginity “early” relative to those who did so “later;” and among dating teens that had sex and subsequently broke up relative to their dating peers that broke up but did not have sex. (All four correlations, p<.05.)

Yet perhaps not satisfied with these basic results, Meier disaggregated her sample to qualify these associations further. With the “overall” correlation, she found it remained significant only among females who lost their virginity “early” (p<.01); with the female correlation, she found it remained significant only among dating females that had broken up with their boyfriends after losing their virginity (p<.01); with the “early” correlation, she found it remained significant only with those who had broken off the dating relationship after having sex (p<.05); and with the dating breakup correlation, she found it remained significant only among those who broke up but who had no emotional commitment to the relationship (p<.01).

Meier probed further, identifying additional contingencies and “relationship contexts” where losing one’s virginity may or may not yield negative mental health side effects. Yet her methodology that seeks to tease out so many variables that normally go together raises more questions than it answers. Does the professor really believe that teen girls might escape the emotional downside of premarital sex as long as they are older and are in a dating relationship that is “socially embedded,” is characterized by an emotional commitment, and not likely to dissolve?

Although her study found that only 14 percent of the teens who lost their virginity in the study experience depression and lower self-esteem, Meier at least acknowledges that the public health implications can be substantial: “Even if the risk of suffering mental health consequences from having sex as a teen is relatively low, because about half of the adolescent population is exposed, a low risk can translate into a relatively large group of teens affected.”

Nonetheless, one would have hoped that a lady sociologist would have been motivated less by overly nuanced regressions and more by the clear vulnerability that her teen sisters face (and that she documents) relative to teen boys in a society that expects teens to have sex outside of marriage. Had she focused less on trying to get the “relationship contexts” just right, Meier might have concluded that all her contingencies point to life-long marriage as being the context that provides the best protection for the emotional well-being of young women.

(Ann M. Meier, “Adolescent First Sex and Subsequent Mental Health,” American Journal of Sociology 112 [May 2006]: 1811–47.)

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