In a study that has implications for high school sex education, researchers for the first time have mapped the sexual and romantic relationships of students in an entire high school over an 18-month period.
The researchers say their work is important because it shows that adolescent sexual-relationship networks are structured differently from the way they had previously thought. In studies of adults, such networks tend to start with a few promiscuous people and then fan out like hubs in an airline system.
But in the unnamed Midwestern high school of about 1,000 students that researchers studied, the chain unfolded more like a rural phone system with trunk lines running to houses. In other words, the student couplings spread out like a long, continuous chain.
James Moody, a study co-author and a sociologist at Ohio University in Columbus, said he believes the pattern results from a kind of “incest taboo” among adolescents.
“If you break up with someone, you may want to get as far away from them as possible in your next relationship,” he said, “so it spreads out continuously to new people.”
That’s both bad and good news for educators hoping to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among students, Mr. Moody said.
“The bad news is that the network reaches a lot of people,” he said. “The good news is that it is relatively fragile, because you can break the chain anywhere.”
He suggested that schools focus on reaching large numbers of students through broad-based programs of sex education rather than efforts targeted at specific groups. He also said it might be eye-opening for students to learn that they may be links in a potentially very long chain.
His co-authors are Peter S. Bearman, a sociology professor at Columbia University, and Katherine W. Stovel, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Publicized last week, the study appeared in the July issue of the American Journal of Sociology.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week