Study: Sex won't hurt your teens' grades

New findings about high school students should spur a new attitude toward youngsters and intercourse

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 16, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

Teen sex might lead to pregnancy and terrible poetry, but at least it won't keep kids out of the honor society. A new long-term study from University of California at Davis sociologist Bill McCarthy and University of Minnesota sociologist Eric Grodsky found that adults who'd been sexually active as teens have fared just as well in grades, attendance and higher education as their abstinent counterparts. Kind of makes some of us kick ourselves for ever believing it was our brains that were holding us back from getting laid in high school.

But slow down, horny adolescents -- it's not all good news and groping in your parents' den. The sexually active kids who were also academic achievers were likely to be in committed relationships; teens who casually hook up were still reported to "get lower grades and have more school-related problems."

The report likely comes as a welcome bit of back-to-school data for parents, who may be fretting that their kids' boyfriends and girlfriends are distractions on that all-important SAT scores-crushing track to Ivy League glory. Instead, the study suggests, "Teens in serious relationships may find social and emotional support in their sex partners, reducing their anxiety and stress levels in life and in school." Well, it's true; sex is a pretty genius stress buster.

Why then doesn't its alleged academic boosting power appear to do its magic on the kids who get around more? If you've ever tried your hand at sluttiness, you know it takes a lot of energy: the working the room, the flirting, the finding your way back to your home state in the morning.

But while we're no advocates of reckless behavior, we would like to note that the report's writers might be throwing in a tad of editorial moralizing when they say, "The detrimental outcomes commonly attributed to adolescent sexual intercourse occur mostly in non-romantic contexts." How bad can it get for kids who don't have "romantic" relationships? "Female teens who have flings had GPAs that were 0.16 points lower than abstinent teens. Male teens who have casual sex had GPAs that were 0.30 points lower than those who do not have sex." Oh my God, it's practically statistically significant!

The gap between committed and abstinent kids and the casually sexual ones is still wider when it comes to truancy and dropout rates, and there are a whole boatload of physical and emotional reasons to take sex seriously -- at any age. But the report is a step toward acknowledging the simple reality that half of all high school students are already having sex. And maybe it's the beginning of openness about the fact that plenty of people manage to embark on their sexual lives during their teens without any life-ruining consequences -- even, gasp, the more promiscuous ones.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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