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Of Sex, Smarts and the Teenage Mind

The relationship between intelligence and sex among teenagers is more complicated than it seems, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

A number of earlier studies had determined that adolescents who measured higher on intelligence tests were less likely than their peers to engage in sexual intercourse. That led some researchers to speculate that their generally higher levels of aspiration led to greater caution.

But the Carolina study, published last week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, flatly contradicts the earlier picture. (The study combined data from a national survey of 12,000 adolescents and a more detailed look at the behavior of 300 North Carolina teenagers). The research noted that previous studies had failed to properly take into account the influence of religious belief. When students are matched for frequency of church attendance, the results are reversed. Among students older than 15, those at the very low end of the test's scale are more likely to abstain than those with the highest intelligence. The less intelligent students are not just avoiding intercourse: they are less likely to be kissing, petting or even holding hands.

The study's lead author, Dr. Carolyn Halpern of the university's Department of Maternal and Child Health, wrote the data indicate that the smartest teenagers probably feel more confident about their ability to control the outcomes of their sexual activities. Girls of lower intelligence might better recognize that the consequences of engaging in sex are not easily controlled.

Dr. Halpern suggested that the data casts doubt on the idea the sex lives of the smartest teenagers are governed by fears of the possible consequences of intercourse. She said finding effective techniques to promote abstinence may require more research into how teenagers are actually making up their minds.

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