August 1, 2007

Academics and sex, or the lack thereof

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at August 1, 2007 5:31 PM

Via Shellock, there's a fascinating post at Gene Expression on various findings that show that intelligence is correlated with delayed sexual activity. There's a lot of interesting stuff in the post and I encourage reading the whole thing, but I want to point out the results I found surprising. Not because they go against stereotype—they actually confirm "science nerd" stereotypes, but I had convinced myself that these were just stereotypes without much basis in fact. These numbers indicate otherwise: (emphasis in original)

By the age of 19, 80% of US males and 75% of women have lost their virginity, and 87% of college students have had sex. But this number appears to be much lower at elite (i.e. more intelligent) colleges. According to the article, only 56% of Princeton undergraduates have had intercourse. At Harvard 59% of the undergraduates are non-virgins, and at MIT, only a slight majority, 51%, have had intercourse. Further, only 65% of MIT graduate students have had sex.

I was quite shocked that the numbers were this low; I obviously know a lot of grad students, and though I haven't polled them on this subject, I would have guessed a much higher percentage. (I'm not chauvinistic enough to suggest that MIT grad students are less sociable than those at Berkeley—I expect the populations are pretty comparable, at least in departments like physics.)

However, I may be thinking too narrowly in terms of the stereotype of scientists who are virgins because they are socially maladjusted. (There are people like this in the community, but it's a small fraction.) The Gene Expression post lists a number of other possible reasons this could appear as an aggregate effect, and argues for a few of them as contributing factors. (At an individual level, of course, it will be strongly path-dependent.)

One factor that wasn't mentioned there is culture. This could manifest in at least two ways. The first is that a substantial fraction of grad students in technical fields are immigrants from cultures that are much more sexually conservative. Thus, even if these students themselves don't hold conservative views, they may be less likely to have had sex. The second is that the culture in academia seems to me to be less sexually charged than in other spheres. This is not to say that it's sexually restrictive—as the Gene Expression post points out, most academics hold liberal views about sex—but it's less focused on going out and getting laid than, say, the Late Night Shots crowd. Our lab's monthly board game nights aren't terribly conducive to hook-ups (although surprisingly conducive to drunkenness).

Anyway, this might explain the results of the academic polls, but the original post is concerned with correlations with IQ rather than academic achievement. A logical extension would be to look at people in other intellectually-demanding disciplines, like law or medicine. Would the numbers be similar? My guess is no, but I may be stereotyping again.

Tags: Academia, Science, Sex

I suspect that if we go back to various disciplines' relative demands on socializing in general that we'll find the leading-order part of the answer. That is, I am viewing sexual activity as just one example of socializing, and many areas of sciences are simply less demanding of massive amounts of socialization. And when we do see it for science, it becomes required at a later age than it does for other fields, such as law, or for people whose purpose in going to college involves socialization more than academic pursuits.

Posted by: Mason | August 1, 2007 6:53 PM

Shellock doesn't think it's reduced libido. :-)

Posted by: Sharon | August 1, 2007 7:03 PM

I think risk aversion combine with social situation that as less conducive to sex plays a major part.

Also Dawrinisticly I find this very disturbing but I guess I can be greatful dumb people also don't have sex according to this study. Though i bet when they do they are less likely to avoid pregnancy. (anyone see idiocracy the movie?)

ps it definatly not libido :}

Posted by: shellock | August 1, 2007 7:08 PM

Mason: I would state your point a slightly different way: that sciences may be more tolerant (at the grad school level) of people who are already disinclined to socialize, and thus may draw more such people. The Gene Expression post notes a finding that "smarter people spend more time socializing with their friends" but this is not apparently limited to academics the way some of the other results are.

Shellock: Unless you are going to refute the (quite astonishing) statistic about masturbation at MIT (which is in the linked post), or are otherwise going to produce aggregate evidence with N>2, you are steering this comment thread towards the rocky shores of TMI.

Also, unless you are Charles Murray, it is not obvious that the genetic component of intelligence is strong. I don't tend to worry about whether intelligent people are breeding; there aren't enough jobs for the existing number of intelligent people anyway so it's not clear that society needs more.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 1, 2007 7:34 PM

/agree, it's definitely not libido.

Posted by: Lemming | August 1, 2007 7:40 PM

Alright, just had to get that out of the way. I expect reduced libido does influence it (to a small extend), but I also think that people who really dive into their work (mentally) have reduced desires across the board.

Also, I expect there's a strong correlation just around the sort of person who's likely to "follow the rules": "stay in school", "get good grades", "don't get (someone) knocked up" and the like.

Now I'm off to read the article, so that I can make the transition from uninformed tard to plain old fashioned tard.

Posted by: Lemming | August 1, 2007 7:44 PM

Hmmm... now that AG mentions the article discusses masturbation at MIT, I feel compelled to actually read it. (I just wanted to make that public.)

Posted by: Mason | August 1, 2007 9:25 PM

See, I told you it was interesting!

About the MIT masturbation statistic, I must say that I stand corrected: apparently they are not a bunch of wankers.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 1, 2007 10:27 PM

Well, some of them are. :)

I've actually met a number of nice people with MIT affiliations. Then again, I also have close friends who were members of Page House. Go figure.

Posted by: Mason | August 1, 2007 10:51 PM

One wonders about the honesty of some of those reports - perhaps academic achievers with poor social skills are more likely to lie on these surveys? Especially the MIT masturbation numbers (20% female? Come on!) look ridiculous.

Posted by: Justin | August 2, 2007 10:55 AM

Dr. Jocelyn Elders, you know, the former U.S. Surgeon General who suggested that masturbation is "part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught" and got fired for it? Yup. This fantastic example of politics screwing over common medical sense has a wonderful quote about the subject:

"We know that more than 70 to 80% of women masturbate, and 90% of men masturbate, and the rest lie."

Posted by: Josh | August 2, 2007 11:39 AM

She got fired for that? Sheesh! Even more evidence that our country is... well... emasculated.

Posted by: Mason | August 2, 2007 12:03 PM

Undoubtedly some fraction of respondents are lying, but I don't see why the effect would be larger in the general population. If anything, I would expect academics to be less embarrassed about masturbation (due to more liberal views on sexuality) and more likely to take a detached, scientific approach to such a survey, with more respect for the integrity of the results.

The effect of lying would run in the opposite direction on the virginity statistics: it's embarrassing to admit to virginity, so the reality is probably even less sexual activity than is indicated by the numbers.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 2, 2007 12:08 PM

Look, it's pretty easy to get. MIT people are excelling at their research and studies because, lacking sufficient game to keep up with their age cohort, they might as well do something interesting.

That's right. If you ain't got game, you program your own. :-)

Posted by: agm | August 2, 2007 1:56 PM
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