Monday, March 8, 2010

Brief: Do trust levels predict sexual activity among the young?

I'm becoming more convinced that the decline in trust levels during the late 1980s may have a lot to do with the decline starting a few years later in all sorts of risky behavior. The logic is simple: the more (or less) trusting you are of others, the more (or less) risk you're willing to take in social life, and also exploiters will have a more (or less) easy time finding "suckers." We looked before at homicide rates. Now let's turn to sexual activity among young people.

For trust levels, I use the General Social Survey's question on whether you think others can be trusted, and restricted respondents to those from 18 to 25 years old. The GSS doesn't survey minors, so I used this age range for "young people." The time series for trust doesn't seem to vary wildly based on which age range you restrict it to, so it seems OK to use trust levels among young adults as a proxy for trust levels among adolescents. For risky sexual activity, I use the pregnancy rate among females ages 15 to 17 (here), which are yearly from 1972 to 2006; and the percent of high schoolers who have had sex before age 13 (here), which are bi-yearly from 1991 to 2007. The trust data are from 1972 to 2008, and coverage is usually bi-yearly or more frequent.

Here are the results. Trust levels are in blue and sexual activity measures in red.

Although the relationship is not perfect, there's a close match overall, and the timing looks like the trust level changes first, followed by a change in sexual activity. That fits with trust being the cause and risky behavior the effect. The correlation across years between trust and the pregnancy rate is +0.47, and between trust and the early sex rate it is +0.44. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey that I got the early sex rate data from has three other measures of teenage sexual activity, and the relationships are similar but not quite as strong.

The correlations with trust are: +0.15 for percent of high schoolers who'd had sex at least once in the past 3 months; +0.21 for the percent who've had 4+ partners in their life; and +0.23 for the percent who've ever had sex. * I also created an index of young sexual activity, which is just the sum of the fraction of students responding positively to each of the 4 questions. This is the expected number of "yes" answers that a high schooler would give while reading off the check-list of risky sex behaviors. The correlation between this index and trust is +0.25.

In general, I think these correlations are weaker just because there are fewer data -- 1991 to 2007, every other year -- than in the case of pregnancy rates. I suspect that the pre-1991 picture for the 4 behaviors surveyed in the YRBS would have looked highly similar to the teen pregnancy rate, so if we had those data, they would probably make the pattern even stronger. In any case, it seems clear that, while not the entire story, how trusting people are of one another plays a substantial role in how willing young people are to engage in risky sexual behavior. That's not too surprising if we think of trust as a form of insurance, but it's still something that's been completely overlooked as far as I know from the social science lit on these two topics that have previously been studied independently of each other.

If I can find good data on cross-national differences in number of lifetime sex partners, or other measure of promiscuity, I might use the national trust level data from the World Values Survey and turn this into a fuller post. It depends on how easy the former data are to get. Informally, though, my impression is that the low-trust countries are more sexually conservative, while the high-trust ones are more sexually liberal.

* The sexual activity correlations paired the sex activity variable and trust variable for the same year if possible (for 1991 and 1993), but since the data use different sets of alternate years after that, I paired the sex variable in a certain year with the trust variable in the following year.

GSS variables used: trust, age, year

No comments:

Post a Comment