NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Teen Substance Use doesn't Cause Sexual Activity, Say Researchers

May 22, 2003

Rates of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth in the United States are high, the latter having risen from seven per 1,000 in 1940 to 46 per 1,000 in 1994. The current rates are nearly twice those of Britain and Canada. And survey data indicate that in 1999, 25 percent of sexually active students had used alcohol or drugs at the time of their last sexual intercourse.

Researchers say that while the overwhelming majority of studies show a positive correlation between alcohol and marijuana use and sexual activity, those studies do not establish that drug and alcohol use is in and of itself a cause of sexual activity. What then explains the association?

  • One alternative explanation is that these behaviors may reflect a common personality trait, such as thrill-seeking behavior.
  • Another possible explanation is that a teenager who chooses to have many sexual partners may use drugs to cope with society's negative view of such behavior, thereby lowering the psychic costs of risky sex.

There are other reasons why studies have not been able to establish causality. For example, these studies typically use non-representative samples and most fail to control for family background and personal factors. Finally, no prior study has recognized the possibility that reverse causality may be at work; that is, that sexual activity may actually cause substance abuse.

Source: Les Picker, "Does Alcohol and Marijuana Use Alter Teen Sexual Behavior," May 2003, NBER Digest, May 2003; based upon Michael Grossman, Robert Kaestner and Sara Markowitz, "Get High and Get Stupid: The Effect of Alcohol and Marijuana Use on Teen Sexual Behavior," NBER Working Paper No. 9216, September 2002, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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