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Friday Night Lights and the Teenage Virgin—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on April 14, 2009.

Friday Night Lights and the Teenage Virgin
By Ian Ayres ’86

I’m a huge fan of Friday Night Lights — to the point that when a student makes an especially good point in class, I sometimes intone “Clear eyes, full heart,” emulating the coach in the series.

But it was with some sadness that I watched a couple weeks ago an episode in which Julie, the coach’s daughter, lost her virginity (or at least when her parents learned that she was no longer a virgin). I agree with the discussion on Slate that the episode included one of the best parent/child conversations about sex on television (made all the more interesting because it paralleled a mother/daughter conversation two years ago on the same subject).

Nonetheless, I was somewhat concerned that the last senior on the show lost her virginity. The show has reached what the Supreme Court calls the “inexorable zero.” I am not a fan of “socialist realism,” the idea that art needs to move society toward a better equilibrium. But viewers may get the subtle message that it is really unusual to graduate from high school as a virgin.

In fact, I asked a bunch of adolescents (ranging in age from 10 to 15) who had just seen the episode to estimate the percentage of high schoolers graduating this year in the United States who are virgins, and they came back with estimates in the range of 20 percent to 35 percent.

The truth is harder to determine; but there is a very good chance that the majority of high-school graduates are virgins. According to a 2002 study conducted by the CDC, approximately 54 percent of high-school students are virgins. In 2007, the virgin percentage was still holding at 52 percent.

(Mini-bleg: If you have an adolescent, what does he or she think is the percentage of graduating high schoolers who are virgins? Let us know.)

As I’ll argue in my next post, we might do well to correct the misimpression that it’s unusual to be a virgin in high school.

A high-school diploma is just one of several observable characteristics from which a statistical inference about virginity might be drawn. For example, among high schoolers, which group do you think has the higher proportion of virgins — smokers or non-smokers? Some adolescents I asked said smokers — offering a demand-side story that fewer people would want to have sex with them because of their breath. But I once got in trouble with a beloved relative for arguing a supply-side story: high-schoolers who were willing to engage in one risky, rebellious activity (smoking) were more likely to be willing to engage in another (sex).

There’s a hilarious scene in the Woody Allen movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask where Woody inferred the probability of getting lucky from a date’s college. The MIT student newspaper conducted a very non-scientific survey and reported the percent of MIT undergraduates who are virgins, by major:

At least with regard to sex, MIT economics majors are not putting the freak in Freakonomics.