April 2005 – A recent study of the sexual relationships among high schoolers indicates the potential for the devastating spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) within that segment of the population.
The study, titled “Chains of Affection: The Structure of Adolescent Romantic and Sexual Networks,” was published in the July, 2004 issue of American Journal of Sociology. It was based on interviews conducted with 832 students from a typical Midwestern high school, given the fictional name “Jefferson City High.”
According to co-researcher Peter S. Bearman of Columbia University, students were asked to name individuals with whom they had had a romantic, sexual relationship in the past 18 months. (This was defined as a relationship in which a teen said they had special feelings of affection for the sexual partner – in what generally would be considered a “dating” relationship, rather than merely “hooking up” for casual sex.)
The results were fairly stunning, providing a “spanning tree” model of the relationship network at Jefferson City High. Out of 832 interviewees, 573 students had been involved in at least one “romantic and sexual relationship,” with 288 inside the network.
Because the purpose of the study was to determine how STDs might spread through a student population, Bearman said the Jefferson City High network was “the worst case scenario for potential disease diffusion within the population.”
He noted “in an 18-month period more than 50% of the [sexually-active] students at Jefferson were chained together through romantic and sexual relationships that could have involved the exchange of fluids.”
This means that the number of sex partners may not be determinative of a student’s risk for getting an STD. Essentially, because of the networking of relationships, a single sexual encounter could expose a teen to an STD that was initially passed on to numerous sex partners up the line.
“While these adolescents have only had one partner,” Bearman said, “their risk for contracting an STD may be significantly greater than an individual with multiple partners who is embedded in a smaller,” disjointed network.
The potential for the devastation of young lives due to STDs is startling, the report stated. Every year in the U.S. more than 12 million people discover that they have an STD – many of which are incurable. “Adolescent STD acquisition rates outpace those of all other groups, with no change in sight,” Bearman said.
In fact, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that, within the general population, STDs cause almost 30,000 deaths a year.
The only good news suggested by the study was that such “spanning tree” networks were highly fragile. That is, by deleting even a handful of students, entire subsections could be isolated and therefore protected from STDs.
The report called for “a shift in social policy toward comprehensive STD education for all adolescents” as a partial solution to the dangers posed by the Jefferson City High model. Generally, such a call means the promotion of condom usage.
However, abstinence-only education, while currently controversial in some school districts, has shown tremendous promise in deterring teen sex and preventing STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and abortions.
Ironically, Bearman has co-authored another study, also published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Sociology, that showed that teens who take a “virginity pledge” delay their first sexual experience an average of 18 months longer than those who make no such pledge.
If an abstinence approach can succeed in knocking enough teens out of a network like that in Jefferson City High, it may help prevent some of the STD onslaught that appears to be just over the horizon.