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  • Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers
  • Tim Clydesdale
Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. By Mark D. Regnerus. Oxford University Press. 2007. 290 pages. $24 paper.

It is hard to imagine two topics further apart in the day-to-day lives of most American teens than sex and religion. Sex is, of course, in the foreground – pushed there by hormones and held there by popular culture, while religion occupies the background – a "nice thing" but peripheral to most teens' lives. Yet, regulation of sexual behavior by religion has a history several millennia long, and few religious groups will abide any let up in their regulatory efforts. Through careful analysis of national survey data, Regnerus demonstrates that religion holds considerable sway over many American teens' beliefs about sexual behavior. As for their sexual behaviors – well, that is a different and more nuanced matter. Sexual behavior is notoriously difficult to study, and especially so among adolescents. Regnerus' task, then, is not unlike nailing Jell-O to a wall. Amazingly, he makes it stick in 12 places. Whether his findings will hold true among future teen cohorts, however, is unknown.

Relying chiefly on two national datasets, the National Study of Youth and Religion and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and augmented by follow-up in-depth interviews with select NSYR participants, Regnerus draws 12 conclusions. Among them are these: (1. the largest difference in sexual decision-making exists between religious and non-religious teens, and less among religious sub-types (e.g., Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics); (2. most who pledge abstinence publicly do not keep their pledges, but they do delay first coitus, have fewer sexual partners, and have more faithful sexual partners; (3. religious influence on teen sexual behavior is mostly indirect and instrumental, rarely intentional; (4. many religious teens are less likely to use contraception at first coitus; and (5. class-based and popular sexual norms influence teens' sexual decisions far more than religious norms. In addition, Regnerus makes two general but important points: American teens are "far from oversexed" (many are inactive, many others debut then cease), and most teens view sex as multi-dimensional (physical, emotional and moral). Regnerus [End Page 1699] presents a host of tables to support his points, and includes a hefty appendix of regression models. He also includes qualitative interview excerpts that illustrate his survey findings.

Forbidden Fruit is several things at once: first, it is a set of well-embedded and careful quantitative analyses of religion and teen sexual behaviors/beliefs; second, it is an apology for religion's inclusion in the study of the same; third, it is a critique of contemporary sex education methods as ineffective and incoherent; and fourth, it is a critique of America's incoherent sexual norms. Regnerus is most successful with the first of these; he is a skilled quantitative analyst, and this book will become the reference for understanding religion and sex among American teens in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Regnerus is also a successful apologist for the inclusion of religious measures and constructs in matters of public health. Though religion's influence is not the whole story, Regnerus convinces readers that the story of American teens and sex is not whole without religion. Particularly useful is his typology of religious influence: vastly superior to the psychological indices so prevalent (and so useless) in much current public health research, his typology should become required reading for all those now jumping on the religion and health behavior research bandwagon.

As a critique of sex education and sexual mores in America, however, Forbidden Fruit is less satisfying. Regnerus throws a few good punches at prime targets, such as sex education and internet pornography. He argues, for example, that wide access to the internet exposes teens to every imaginable sexual activity, which in turn has made the debate over what to include in school sex education "irrelevant" (58), and has damaged teen sexual expectations and behavior in powerful ways. This is an important critique, to be sure, but Regnerus could have developed this point further and pushed its implications. Had he sought out the voices of...