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Lies we tell kids – sex in the city vs in the country

Some time ago I read an excellent essay by Paul Graham called, “Lies we tell kids.” I found the text and the comments stimulating enough that I made several private journal entries about points that caught my attention in the essay. Below is my response to one of the points he makes about kids who live in sheltered environments versus exposure to the seedy side of life:
Lies We Tell Kids:

I’d have different worries about raising teenage kids in New York. I’d worry less about what they’d see, and more about what they’d do. I went to college with a lot of kids who grew up in Manhattan, and as a rule they seemed pretty jaded. They seemed to have lost their virginity at an average of about 14 and by college had tried more drugs than I’d even heard of.

This is an interesting anecdote because while Paul Graham is talking out of personal experience, and it fits with most people’s impressions of the experience of growing up in the city vs suburban and rural areas, it has also been convincingly argued against as a rule. I seem to have read that research supports that kids experiment sexually at younger ages in rural environments where there are fewer other activities around to divert their interests. Though I still think that it would be harder to argue against more drug availability, and variety of drugs available in cities vs rural areas. Though it is possible there is more drinking in rural areas I would guess. But even that seems to be a problem when you consider that availability is going to be limited by fewer stores, and more people who know how old the kids are.

But I digress. It is still convincing that these are Paul Graham’s anecdotes from personal experience. One wonders what might be the special features of the situation he relates. Is Manhattan different from other urban areas because more opportunities for sex and drugs are available? Was this experience perhaps more related to cultural factors in play at that time? The hippie movement? Baby boomers breaking with tradition? The rise of counter-culture? Or is the prevailing view, and personal experience right, and the research I vaguely recall wrong?

Update: I did some searching and found some links to articles that discuss studies that show what I thought I remembered. Here are two links to such articles:



The basic thing to take away from these articles are that studies seem to show that rural teenagers engage in sex earlier and more often than urban teenagers, and though no research shows any clear causal link, it is widely supposed that opportunities for other kinds of activities in the cities best explain this.

I think it is important to keep in mind that the absence of studies of these kinds from earlier decades leaves the possibility open that this is a recent development, and that changes in culture could play a significant part in explaining the variance between the results and most people’s expectations, and from Paul Graham’s experience.

The only other thing is that I personally find the moralizing tone of the articles very depressing. I suppose that part of this is due to the apparently epidemiological purposes of the studies mentioned in these articles, but something deep in my spirit chaffs uncomfortably at the assumption that bureaucrats armed with statistical information should be prescribing propaganda to shape young people’s behaviors and curtail some of their sources of pleasure for the good of the nation state. It also seems that statistics create a very powerful illusion of large numbers of average people, who make the choices that they do not because of what’s inside them, what they desire or a unique plan of their own, but for easily counted and possibly controlled factors, like where they live and what their local schools are required to teach them.

I don’t like it that talking about sex always has to mean talking about diseases rather than joy. I don’t like it that starting a family while young always has to be looked at as a public problem or a private crisis. That whole notion seems to be based on one of two wrong-headed assumptions, either that people should not be reproducing, or else that they should postpone it until after years of secondary education, possibly until a secure foothold has been gained in both parents careers, often expected to be a job in a large company. That this life path might mean habituating people to a lifestyle to which the addition of children would be much more of a burden than those young and flexible enough to deal with it, or possibly out waiting a woman’s fertile years does not seem like a serious problem to a lot of moderns.

It should go without saying that I don’t think it is a good idea for unprepared and immature teenagers to try to get pregnant right now, in the current culture. But people who prepare for such a life early, with the assistance of family, the help of sympathetic communities, or other institutions, I think it could be normal and healthy, as it sometimes was in ages past, before statistics started telling us all what bacteria we were.

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