CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- A considerable amount of sexual promiscuity among young people goes undetected and unaddressed by mental health professionals, Shani A. Dowd said at a conference on selfdestructive behaviors sponsored by Harvard Medical School.
Much promiscuity involves populations in which it is traditionally thought to be rare: high school students from relatively affluent homes and preadolescent children. "They tend not to come to clinical attention until their grades slip or they get in legal trouble. ... Otherwise, they can fly under the radar for quite some time," said Ms. Dowd, a social worker at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at Boston Medical Center.
"We're not diagnosing upper middle class teenagers. ... They're high performing and do well in school and don't look like the [inner city, working class] stereotype," she said.
Issues underlying promiscuity often involve affective disengagement: These individuals don't feel close or connected to anyone; they have low self-esteem and are not well regarded by others. As early as junior high school, promiscuous sex can be a ritual of initiation--a powerful incentive for those who feel isolated and insecure. Once they have engaged in the behavior, it is easier to keep it up.
A social context that seems to promote promiscuity in middle class adolescents and children is lack of parental engagement. "Two-career parents put in long hours, and their children's activities are organized by others who are not affectively connected to them. ... [These children] have lots of unsupervised time at home," Ms. Dowd said at the meeting, which was also sponsored by Cambridge Hospital.
Promiscuity is particularly likely to be undetected in young women, both lesbian and heterosexual, who tend to be sexually aggressive to a degree that makes therapists uncomfortable. …