Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Asking Parents about Asking Teens about Sex

Utah is the only state that chooses to skip all the sex questions on its youth health surveys.

Of course, even without asking them, we already know Utah teens are having sex. Barring an immaculate conception epidemic, the skyrocketing teen pregnancy rate here is pretty strong evidence to that effect.  But if we asked questions, we might learn information to help us combat this problem.

Some people argue that asking teens if they have had intercourse puts ideas into their heads. They're wrong, of course. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed that asking teens if they have sex does nothing to motivate them to start.

This is one case where common sense supports the literature. Surveys have included questions asking teens about tobacco and alcohol use for years without motivating teens to use these substances. Disappointingly, our persistent inclusion of survey questions about eating fruits and vegetables has not motivated teens to use these substances, either. Many people have had similar experiences asking teens questions about their behavior in day-to-day life, with equally little effect:
"Did you clean your room?"
"Did you finish your homework?"
"If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?"

Health Department workers are not afraid that they will motivate teen sex by administering uncensored health surveys. Nearly all of us know what the literature says about that and a fair proportion of us also have a reasonable degree of common sense. However, we are afraid of the people who are afraid of the questions. Every year at the annual health surveys advisory meeting, someone points out how lame it is that we omit such an important part of the survey.  Then someone else argues that we have to skip the sex questions or we'll "endanger the whole survey," meaning that a nasty parents' rights group will get some law passed forbidding teen health surveys.

This year, some innovative colleagues of mine have proposed a clever plan. They want to add questions to the adult survey asking parents if they oppose or support sex questions on teen surveys.

We may learn that Utah parents really do hate such questions. Even if we learn that the vast majority of Utah parents want youth surveys to include questions about sex, we still may not be able to make it happen--it wouldn't be the first time a loud and powerful minority squashed the will of a more complacent majority. But either way, at least we would be informing our decisions about our survey questions with actual data instead of frightened speculations.

I like data. That is why I like surveys (the uncensored ones).