Class and opposition to teenage sex: A life history perspective

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The GSS asks people about the morality of premarital sex between post-pubescent minors (TEENSEX):

What if [a male and female] are in their early teens, say 14 to 16 years old? In that case, do you think sex relations before marriage are always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

Most people say “always wrong,” so I’ll just look at those responses; the other responses have little room to vary since all must add up to 100%. How does opposition vary across demographic groups? [1] As for social class, the elites say they’re more ethical than the rabble, but on the other hand, they’re big supporters of “sex is natural and therefore can’t be harmful.” So which is it?

Let’s see what the data say:


Clearly, those with more prestigious jobs (SEI) are less opposed. Perhaps this is because the prestigious can get away with more shocking or outside-the-mainstream views. But that’s not what the three other measures of social class suggest.

As for real income (REALINC, in $5000 intervals), opposition increases from poor to lower-middle income people ($40K), and then declines somewhat steadily among middle and upper income people. My guess here is that middle and upper income people don’t think the teenage years count — as long as their kids get advanced degrees, make a lot of money, and don’t marry scumbags, they could care less if they fool around a little in high school.

Poor people, though, see their kids as living shorter lives — they enter Adult World sooner, so it matters what they do right after puberty. If you live in the same town you grew up in and plan to get married in your early 20s, having a reputation as a slut in high school will harm your prospects a lot more than if you move across the country five times before marrying, and even then only 10 years after graduating.

Education (EDUC) and intelligence (WORDSUM) show a similar pattern to job prestige and real income, as all are indicators of social class. Opposition increases up through 6th grade graduates, but declines pretty steadily among those who made it through middle school and beyond. For intelligence, like the other class variables, there’s an increase among the below-average, and then a steady decline among the above-average.

So, judging by these four ways of measuring social class, there seems to be a real difference between the upper, middle, and lower groups in how fast or slow they expect their children to grow up and do adult things. In biology jargon, this is a difference in life history strategies. There’s a parallel here between parents who invest more in their sons or their daughters, according to the Trivers-Willard Hypothesis: richer families favor their sons, while poorer families favor their daughters. One study found support for this idea by looking at how Gypsy vs. Hungarian families in Hungary invested in their children (free PDF here). Since lower class families care more about their daughters, they’ll freak out more if they engaged in premarital sex while still young and thus when reputations matter most. Upper class families will be thinking of their sons, though, and conclude, “Meh, let them sow their wild oats, as long as they settle down when the time comes.”

[1] It seems like younger people would be least opposed, since 14 to 16 is awfully close to their own age. They might think the police will come after them next. Sure enough, age is a very strong predictor here — indeed, the only demographic group I could find among whom a majority doesn’t consider it “always wrong” is 18 year-olds.

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11 Comments

  1. Or, you’re more opposed to something you could actually see your kids doing. Lower class and lower intelligence people have lower future time orientation, and so do their kids. Therefore the parents will be more likely to be strongly opposed to it.

  2. Because “premarsx,” real income, and education all show a pronounced secular trend you really ought to be doing the analysis within a single year or controlling for period effects.

  3. Because “premarsx,” real income, and education all show a pronounced secular trend you really ought to be doing the analysis within a single year or controlling for period effects. 
     
    Do they? For EDUC, yes, due to the education bubble. But checking SEI(c:5,17), REALINC(c:10000,5000), and WORDSUM by YEAR, restricting YEAR to 1986-2006 (when the TEENSEX question was asked), there’s no strong secular trend. 
     
    But I repeated the original searches, only going in roughly 5-year intervals, and the patterns look the same.

  4. Or, you’re more opposed to something you could actually see your kids doing. Lower class and lower intelligence people have lower future time orientation, and so do their kids. Therefore the parents will be more likely to be strongly opposed to it. 
     
    This still falls under the “fast vs. slow” life history explanation that I gave.

  5. Other factors that seem obvious: poorer people are more likely to think that their children will become mothers or fathers in their early teens, a poor 16 year old mother is much less likely to be able to get an education and/or a decent career path, wealthier parent/child sets are more likely to all agree that abortion is an acceptable option…

  6. It makes me wonder what the approval rates are for sex outside marriage for the various respondent age groups. Do people who disapprove of unmarried teens having sex also disapprove of older unmarried people having sex, and if so, at similar rates?

  7. One interesting thing is that people of average intelligence/education seem to be more opposed to teen sex than people above or below. I hypothesize there may be some of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development at play here. People at the bottom may simply think “What’s wrong with that? It feels good!”. People in the middle say, “It’s dangerous to have sex that early, it can lead to all sorts of problems. It’s best to not do it at all.” The most educated people are thinking, “Well, it’s not always bad. It does sometimes work out.” 
     
    Another interesting thing is that income doesn’t seem to matter much, while education and intelligence do. I don’t have the numbers. Which is more heritable, income or education level? Knowing this could give a hint as to whether moral views about teen sex are more a product of genes or environment.

  8. How do rates of actually having had sex aged 14-16 vary across the demographic criteria used here? If you did have sex before 16 yet suffered no ill consequences, would you be more likely not to think of it as unequivocally wrong? If rates declined with higher socio-economic status, education etc., as did the effect of negative consequences (since at least some of them are mitigable with money), then that could explain the hump in the middle.

  9. How do rates of actually having had sex aged 14-16 vary across the demographic criteria used here? 
     
    This is a very good question. 
     
    People say one thing, typically what they are expected to say by society and their social millieu but usually do what their genes have programmed them to do :-)

  10. Class is a state of mind, not income. I’m sure class is related to intelligence, but it is not so clear that it’s related to education. 
     
    Possibly I’m thinking of a different type “class” and it is perhaps related to being a cultural southerner.

  11. How much of the response variation could be due to the attitude towards precise speech? I struggle with questions like these — surely there is some situation when almost any behavior is justified? This issue could be answered by adding in the “almost always wrong” responses to see if it changes the curve.

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