Forbidden Fruit

So, I just finished reading an absolutely fascinating book called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers by Mark Regnerus, a professor at University of Texas-Austin. The book focuses on how religiosity influences teenagers’ sexual attitudes and behaviors.  (See the note below if you’re curious about his data sources.) Regnerus is very clear that the objective of his book is not to give advice to parents regarding how to handle their children’s emerging sexuality. Rather, the objective is to offer a “thorough, factual portrait of modern adolescence.”

After finishing the book, I decided I would put together a series of posts regarding kids and sexuality. This is an important topic for me since I have three kids (two girls ages 14 and 10 and a 7-year-old boy) who ask us all kinds of questions about, well, everything, and a spouse who is hell bent on speaking frankly with our children about, well, everything. And since I’m Mormon and my kids are Mormon, that’s my angle. I hope some non-Mormon folks will read it, too—either to say that your experiences were similar, divergent, or somewhere in between.

To start us off, I just want to highlight ten of the most intriguing and/or worrisome data points in Regnerus’s book (as chosen by me in an entirely un-scientific fashion) about Mormon teenagers:

  1. Mormon parents are the most likely of all religious groups in the U.S. to not talk to their children at all about birth control.
  2. Mormon youth were the “safest” during first sex: 92% used birth control compared to 56.1% of Jewish youth (the lowest).
  3. The percentage of Mormon parents who find talking about sex to be “somewhat or very hard” is the 2nd highest (29.1%). Only Mainline Protestants find it more difficult to do so—and only barely (29.5%). This is in contrast to 11.7% of Black Protestants.
  4. Mormon adolescents scored the lowest of all groups in terms of average correct answers on a Sex and Pregnancy Risk Quiz. Mormon youth got 2.43 out of 5 answers correct (although all the kids—religious or not—did poorly).
  5. More Mormon youth (79.7%) than any other group said their parents would be “extremely mad” if they had premarital sex as compared to 41.2% of the “no religion” kids.
  6. Mormon youth were the highest by a long shot in terms of saying that they would feel guilty after having sex (77.1%).
  7. More Mormon youth (27.1%) than any other group had pledged abstinence from sex until marriage.
  8. Mormons have the highest mean age of “sexual debut” (Regnerus’s term): 18.0.   (Interestingly, the difference in timing of first sex between the most and least religious is just under one year, so not much.)
  9. No Mormon youth reported having a steady sexual relationship with one partner and just under 6% said that they had multiple sexual relationships (the lowest of all religious groups).
  10. Mormon youth had the lowest percentage (9%) who had had oral sex, as compared to 29.7% of Jewish youth (the highest).

Some of these things are good.  Others, not so good.  I’m curious about what you think.  If you’re a member of the Mormon church, does any of this data surprise or worry you?  Does this data jive with your experience?  Why/why not? Do you feel that your religious beliefs positively or negatively influenced your sexual attitudes and behaviors?

Next week, I will dive into talking to our kids about sex. I might share the way Brent completely flubbed up the birds-and-the-bees talk with our 8-year-old daughter. Or to be fair, I might share how I clumsily waded my way through Stuart’s recent dinner table question:  “Mom, what does ‘sex drive’ mean?”


Regnerus based his analysis on three primary data sources. The first source was the National Survey of Youth and Religion—a random-digit-dial telephone survey of all American household telephone numbers with at least one teenager between 13 and 17. A total of 3,370 adolescents completed the survey and an accompanying interview was conducted with each participating teenager’s mother or father. The second data source was in-depth interviews with 267 teenagers from all around the country (drawn from the pool who had completed the telephone survey). The third source was the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (or “Add Health”), which he says is the most comprehensive survey of adolescents and young adults ever taken.