Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I am sick of hearing Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers complain about a perceived cultural decline among the younger generations. For a variety of measures, things started to go bad already by the 1950s, became obscene during the 1960s and '70s, and plateaued some time during the 1980s. Since roughly 1990, however, things have gotten steadily better. This series will catalog such a trend for measures typically given in support of the declinist hypothesis: we begin with sexual behavior, and will eventually cover violent crime, divorce, narcissism, the arts, and whatever other examples I come across or that readers suggest in the comments. The hope is that the series will prevent the real-world picture from disappearing down the Memory Hole, as every generation thinks that patterns among its usurpers spell doom, regardless of what the data show.
Importantly, I am more interested in the slope or derivative of an indicator at some point in time, and less so in the value of the indicator at that point. The reason is simple: those who claim that our culture is declining, decaying, rotting, dying, and devolving are making an argument about whether some indicator is increasing or decreasing over time. What the declinists are really saying is that there are forces that cause promiscuity, say, to increase or to decrease. Therefore, even if some Bad Thing was lower in 1958 than in 2008, it may have been in a state of worsening then (increasing), and in a state of improving now (decreasing), so the underlying corrosive forces must have been stronger then and weaker now. It is the strength of these unseen "causes of decline" that I'm interested in.
Sluttiness is perhaps the most frequently given example of how far kids these days have fallen -- fallen, that is, from the zenith of innocence embodied by fucking your gf in the back of your car at Make-out Point (or the drive-in theater), round-robin pairing off during the sexual revolution, and the barely-covers-you costumes of the disco era and its spillover into the nightclub scene of the 1980s. Although there are not national probability samples (as opposed to convenience samples) going back decades for the entire diversity of perversions, indicators of sexual misbehavior correlate with each other, so we may need to rely on a proxy indicator if data are lacking for another.
The most straightforward indicator of sluttiness is simply the percentage of people who have had a "high" number of partners for their age. Since the declinists target the younger generations, let's look at the percentage of high schoolers who have had 4 or more sexual partners. Here are the data from the representative National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. From 1991 to 2007, this percentage has decreased. This is the strongest argument against the declinist hypothesis.
I could not find a good national probability sample that included a straightforward measure of sluttiness before 1991, but we can look at some proxies. The percentage of adolescents who have ever had sex is one: if you haven't had sex ever, you can't have had multiple partners, and earlier age of first intercourse is correlated with having more partners (that is not a tautology). The YRBS data above show that this indicator too has been decreasing from 1991 to 2007. Before then, we turn to a different dataset, although it is also national and representative: the National Survey of Family Growth. According to the CDC's summary:
Proportions were calculated for adolescent women in each year of age from 15 through 19 who reported having had premarital sexual intercourse by March 1 in 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, and 1988. For all ages combined for each of these periods, the proportion of adolescent women who reported having had premarital sexual intercourse increased steadily (from 28.6% in 1970 to 51.5% in 1988 (Table 1)).
The 1988 figure of 51.5% is nearly the same as the 1991 figure of 50.8% from the YRBS data (see here, where the data are broken down by male vs. female). Thus, at least as far back as 1970 (and probably earlier), the fraction of teenagers who had had sex was already increasing, it peaked around 1990, and has been decreasing ever since.
We can also look at the spread of sexually transmitted diseases that are very common and have been around long enough for there to be decades of relevant data. First we look at gonorrhea. This table of gonorrhea rates by year shows that it increased from 1941 to 1946, decreased until 1957, increased until 1975, and decreased until 1997, leveling off thereafter. The main trends that emerge are a 20-year period of increase from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, and a 20-year period of decrease from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.
A widespread campaign to treat gonorrhea began when the rate started to decrease, so some of the decreasing trend may be due to better medicine, but combined with the data on number of partners and virginity, some of it must also be due to lower promiscuity. In any case, the data do suggest an increasing trend in promiscuity starting in the late 1950s and lasting at least until the mid-1970s.
Next we look at type 2 herpes. Its prevalence has been decreasing since some time in the late 1990s, especially among adolescents (free full text here, popular journalism write-up here). It had been increasing at least from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. Because herpes is not treatable like gonorrhea is, it must be that more responsible sexual behavior has curbed its spread, again in particular among adolescents.
Taken together, these various indicators -- what percentage of teenagers have had "many" partners, what percentage has ever had sex, and what percentage has a common STD -- all argue for a period of cultural decline starting in the 1960s, perhaps as early as the late 1950s, which lasted until about 1990. Since then, however, our culture has been in a state of progress regarding teenage sluttiness. Thus, if any age cohort gets to brag about improving sexual mores, it is those born about 1975 or after.
Finally, note that the average female's appearance tells us nothing about the actual level or rate of increase/decrease in sluttiness. Because this is what most older people use to support the declinist hypothesis -- "young girls didn't used to wear thongs or jeans that low-cut when I was a boy!" -- it's worth emphasizing. Note also that more salacious dance practices among youngsters don't tell us anything real either, something I pointed out with a field study on my personal blog. Girls these days may give you a standing lapdance on the dancefloor, but -- although the male receiver may wish otherwise -- this doesn't mean she is going to fuck you. One plausible reason for the disconnect between appearance and reality is that appearances are largely driven by fashion, which changes for its own sake, rather than reflect underlying changes in preferences or behavior.
While oral sex is not worth looking at as a measure of sluttiness compared to intercourse-related indicators, it's worth mentioning that there is no "oral sex epidemic," as Oprah phrased it in a typically anti-male way. (The guys would refer to it as the "efflorescence of oral sex.") Nor is oral sex being substituted for intercourse, another worry in the mind of the declinists. Read the free pdf of the study here, or if you're lazy, a Newsweek editorial summarizing it. As is usual in these cases, the only thing that is epidemic here is a fear of an epidemic.