Gender and the Influence of Peer Alcohol Consumption on Adolescent Sexual Activity

By Waddell, Glen R. | Economic Inquiry, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Gender and the Influence of Peer Alcohol Consumption on Adolescent Sexual Activity


Waddell, Glen R., Economic Inquiry


I. INTRODUCTION

Given the nature of coital relations, there is little reason to doubt that opposite-gender peers matter in some broad sense. Whether and how the alcohol consumption of these peers matters, however, is an important empirical question on which the literature has heretofore been silent. By considering this potential contributor to adolescent sexual activity, I move the literature toward a better understanding of the importance of peer effects, generally, and inform policy makers in an area where the benefits to mitigating negative influences are potentially large.

While teenage childbearing and sexually transmitted diseases are among the most obvious risks associated with adolescent sexual activity, there is growing evidence of other negative outcomes arising systematically with adolescent sexual activity. For example, adolescent sexual activity has been linked to increased risk of depression, and social and psychological turmoil (e.g., Hallfors et al. 2005: Joyner and Udry 2000; Rector et al. 2002), which is likely to propagate in other longer-run outcomes. Identifying the potential peer effects in this area is clearly integral to our understanding of adolescent health and well-being.

In more recent work, Rees and Sabia (2009) also show that younger age at first intercourse decreases the probability that females graduate high school and, while there is little evidence that the number of sexual partners adversely affects human-capital acquisition in boys, Sabia and Rees (2009) show that promiscuity in female adolescents is negatively related to educational attainment. Beyond their role in explaining adolescent health, then, understanding how peer effects may promote sexual activity in youth is integral to understanding educational production, and to the analysis of education-related policy (e.g., zero tolerance policies, single-sex schooling). Again, in this area, the benefits to identifying and subsequently mitigating any negative peer effects are potentially large.

The focus of this analysis considers the relationship between alcohol and sexual activity from a different perspective than has been considered in the literature thus far, and the resulting empirical considerations are therefore somewhat different. For example, while there are examples in the related literature that show that alcohol consumption and sexual intercourse correlate positively in adolescents, establishing any mechanism through which alcohol might encourage such behavior has been somewhat challenging. One obvious difficulty in establishing a causal role for alcohol arises with the potential that one's consumption of alcohol and one's sexual activity both vary with some common attribute that is unobserved by the econometrician (e.g., low risk aversion, high discount rates). Yet, without establishing the existence and nature of any causal relationships, policy analysis on important education and health outcomes might be considered incomplete and the policy prescriptions imprecise.

Here, I specifically focus on the potential influence of the alcohol consumption of opposite-gender peers. Compared to the existing literature, this is both a broader perspective on what might constitute the relevant alcohol-related influences on adolescent sexual activity and, unlike previous literature, a cleaner empirical environment. In particular, I am not asking whether one's own alcohol consumption increases one's own propensity to engage in sexual intercourse but, rather, whether this propensity increases with the drinking behavior of one's opposite-gender peers. Given the difficulty posed in finding credible identification strategies to bring to bear on the question of whether one's own alcohol consumption increases one's own propensity to engage in sexual intercourse, the arguable exogeneity of the key variable of interest here partially mitigates the challenges that have plagued previous studies and may speak back into the broader question of causality running from alcohol use to sexual activity, albeit indirectly and from a slightly different perspective. …

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