Sex on the Brain: Adolescent Psychosocial Science and Sanctions for Risky Sex


The increased rates of sexually transmitted disease among adolescents have been the subject of much public concern over the past several decades. Lawmakers and legal scholars have responded to this public health crisis by suggesting or, in some cases, actually implementing laws that impose harsh sanctions on the risky sexual behavior associated with sexually transmitted diseases. This Article argues that these efforts to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among teens are doomed to fail because they are neither predicated on nor informed by adolescent psychosocial science. Because adolescents enter puberty before their brains and corresponding reasoning and emotional systems are fully mature, they are unlikely to take these laws into account when making decisions about sexual behavior. Furthermore, because punishment does not deter risky behaviors in teens unless it is highly certain to occur, the sanctions built into these proposals are unlikely to be effective. Finally, it is doubtful that adolescents will be aware of these laws, making it even less probable that they will consider potential legal penalties in making decisions about sexual behaviors.

Although such laws are unlikely to be successful in slowing the spread of disease, however, they may have a negative impact on another audience.The expressive effect of these laws may alter adult attitudes about adolescent sexuality, leading to decreased intergenerational communication about sex. Because most teens rely on parents to help them access health care services and because teens who have positive communication experiences with their parents are less likely to engage in risky sex, the net effect of these laws may in fact be negative rather than positive. In the end, the legal system’s most productive role in addressing this public health crisis may be a legislative and executive one: to create and fund programs designed to increase teen self-efficacy, sexual responsibility, and connectedness with parents and schools.

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