Pubs: Why do boys date and have sex?

To some people, they seem like obvious questions: Why do boys date?  Why do boys have sex? And like any human behavior, there’s no single answer.

Who? A group of 106 boys in 10th grade were asked those questions, and they were given a list of about a dozen options to check off for each question.  The boys were recruited by Deborah Tolman (author, “Dilemmas of Desire”) and her team, and the project was funded by the Ford Foundation.

What were the main findings? More than 90% of the boys reported that they had dating experience.  The most popular category of answers that boys checked off were “relational” reasons – things like “I wanted to get to know the person better”.  Some boys, about 20%, acknowledged that their dating was motivated – at least partially – by efforts to fit in with their peers; for a few boys, these were the only reasons they checked off.

About 40% of the boys reported that they’d voluntarily had sex (intercourse); this number is consistent with other studies of American 10th graders.  The most common types of reasons here were relational (“Because I liked/loved the person”)  and sexual (“I felt desire”).  A few boys endorsed peer type reasons (“to fit in with my friends”), but no boy checked off only peer type reasons.

So what? The findings tell us that boys aren’t simple, hormone driven creatures who just want to get laid.  The majority also want to have relationships and care about their partners.

Reaction:   When the article was published, NY Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope read it and contacted me.  She described the article in her blog.  It became one of the most emailed articles of the day and the Times followed up with coverage the following Sunday in their Week in Review section (here).  The original article generated over 200 comments which more or less took two forms: 1) boys just want sex and  lied on the survey to look good, and 2) boys have feelings and the findings are accurate.

So, did they lie?  It’s not likely, but possible.  If you look at other surveys of 10th grade boys, you find about the same percentage who report that they’ve had sex. There was also a connection between how masculine (or macho) boys described themselves and their level of sexual activity.  Boys who described themselves as more stereotypically masculine, were somewhat more likely to say they’d had intercourse, had intercourse at a younger age, and had more partners.  Other researchers have also reported this pattern of findings. Other parts of the survey that weren’t reported in this article, things like rates of depression and anxiety, were also similar to other studies.  This makes me think that  if the boys – as  a group – lied, they they only lied on the “reasons” questions, but why lie on just 1 or 2 survey questions and not the whole thing?

The idea that boys have feelings and that feelings are important to them isn’t exactly new.  In the last 10 years or so, authors like Michael Thompson, William Pollack and Niobe Way have published books about this.