Sunday, May 15, 2005

A friend just passed me a report I urge all parents to read: “Chains of Affection: The Structure of Adolescent Romantic and Sexual Networks,” by Peter S. Bearman, James Moody and Katherine Stovel.

The report (www.sociology. chains.pdf), published in the July 2004 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, presents a daunting picture of what is happening in American high schools.

The researchers interviewed students from the only high school in a mostly white Midwestern town. The town was an hour from the nearest large city, a factor important in ensuring that the researchers were dealing with a rather contained population.

For the study, 832 students were interviewed about their romantic and sexual relationships. Some 573 students identified “romantic or sexual” contacts, and 288 of those were linked to one another in a chain of sexual activity and romantic partnerships, meaning that sexually transmitted diseases would be spread at a high rate within the network.

The implications of the study from a disease perspective are significant; even if a teen has sex for the first time with someone who had only one previous partner, he or she might be at risk from the entire linkage of partnerships, depending on where they are on the network.

“While these adolescents have had only one partner, their risk for contracting an STD may be significantly greater than an individual with multiple partners who is embedded in a smaller, disjointed network,” Mr. Bearman said to writer Ed Vitagliano in the April 2005 issue of the American Family Association’s AFA Journal.

In other words, the idea that the number of sex partners a person has is the greatest indicator of risk is not always true — having sex with one partner who happens to be at the end of a chain of many others can be as dangerous as having sex with all of the others.

Small wonder that one quarter of the 15 million STD infections each year are contracted by teens, more than 3 million per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site ( HealthyYouth/healthtopics/index.htm). STDs affect teens’ current and future health, their fertility and, most sadly, the survival and health of any children they do have.

The study goes on to point out that if any of the linkages in this network is broken, it would have a significant impact on limiting the spread of sexual diseases. The authors debunk the old assumption that STDs can be attacked best by focusing prevention on “high risk” groups. In adolescent society, prevention education should be universal, the authors conclude.

I could not help but notice one fact, however: Most of the partnerships were created through the social structure of the school. Schools are serving as a mechanism by which young people are being introduced to premature sexual behavior and the resulting networks of disease transmission.

This is where teens meet, become attracted, pair off, escalate intimacy and interact physically. Like another institution where STDs are flourishing — the prison system — schools are environments where negative influences are concentrated and multiplied.

Comparing this to the situations of home-schoolers, it is easy to see that teens are far more likely to preserve health and avoid inappropriate and risky behaviors when they are not immersed in an age-segregated, nonfamilial society. Even such comparatively small dangers as smoking and drinking are usually the result of exposure within the peer group, not in the family circle.

Expecting teens to resist negative peer pressure while subjecting them to expectations that they absorb information and maintain relationships within a peer-driven environment is utopian thinking.

Humans are social animals; we desire emotional satisfaction through relationships with others. If such satisfaction comes from family relationships, we do not need to create additional structures. If separated from the family for most of the day, however, the hunger for belonging and intimacy easily can lead teens to accept the surrounding pattern of social structures — pairing off and physical intimacy.

Home-schooling not only increases a teen’s ability to develop academically and in the unique talents he or she possesses, but it also creates a protection against a spectrum of negative influences ranging from substance use to violence and from car accidents to sexually transmitted diseases.

As even the experts have found, the best indicator of good choice-making among teens is active, communicating parents paying attention and giving clear messages. Home-schooling definitely gives a family a greater ability to share ideas and values, to support each other’s goals and to celebrate accomplishments. Strong families — not well-funded schools — are the bedrock of successful education.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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