When N. started getting very agitated about an article on teenage sexual habits in the Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, I wondered who its authors were. A very brief search revealed that the very first of the piece’s authors has published research “proving” that women are less competitive than men and that affirmative action is detrimental to “the blacks” who “cannot succeed” in good schools. After such a pedigree, what hot-button issue is left for such a scholar to explore? The answer is obvious: sex.
The article that annoyed N. so much attempts to prove that a reliable and constant access to contraception results in a higher rate of teenage pregnancies. In order to decrease the rate of teenage pregnancies, the article claims, it is crucial to avoid educating teenagers about contraception.
How would it possess one to defend abstinence education in 2012, you will ask. Well, here is the argument its authors make and also the reasons why said argument is deeply flawed.
Arcidiacono, Khwaja, Ouyang. “Habit Persistence and Teen Sex: Could Increased Access to Contraception Have Unintended Consequences for Teen Pregnancies?” Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, April 2012.
This paper attempts to model how teenage sexual behavior in the US would respond to changes in policies related to sex education and accessibility of contraceptives. The authors assume that teenage pregnancies are very costly to both the young parents and the society: having a child at the age of 14-19 tends to cripple the parents’ professional development and place a sizable burden on the government.
The decision making process of the teenage population is formalized in a nice discrete choice model where “choice” refers to whether a teen chooses to have sex and, if s/he does, what kind of contraception (condoms, pill, unprotected) s/he decides to use. In addition, the teen can choose between three levels of sexual activity (low, medium, high), which results in 10 combined choices. Authors propose a certain utility function that governs the choices made. E.g., for some teenagers, the “utility” of unprotected sex is greater than the cost of potential unwanted pregnancy, and so they engage in the former.
The utility function is based on a few assumptions that one may call “hard” and “soft”. The “hard” assumption must hold regardless of whether it is confirmed by the data. One such assumption is that teenagers adjust the level of their sexual activity depending on the accessibility of contraceptives. As the accessibility goes down, some teenagers supposedly reduce the frequency of sex or even switch to abstinence, and vice-versa.
Secondly, a teenager acts in a manner that maximizes the utility over the course of the entire teenage period, which is 4-5 years. The choice made today affects the entire future path. Since each year 10 options are available, in the beginning the teen is supposed to go over some 100,000 possible paths and pick the one the highest utility. In short, he/she is supposed to act like a very skilled chess player who thinks many steps ahead. Have you met many teens who analyze 100,000 possibilities before deciding to get laid?