Great Moments in Framing

By Sean Carroll | August 12, 2008 1:59 pm

Via Sociological Images.

That’s why you should become scientists, kids! (Because engineers don’t have sex. You want me to spell it out for you?)

I really should just leave it at that, but the sprawling, multifaceted stupidity of this public service announcement — apparently having sex, like smoking the wacky weed, kills brain cells and will cripple your SAT scores, or something — is difficult to let pass without comment. The immaturity of our cultural attitudes toward sex is flat-out embarrassing. There are real concerns that adolescents should be taught about — disease and the risk of unwanted pregnancy being the obvious ones. But they should also be taught that, as long as you are careful about such things, there is nothing wrong with having sex. Done correctly, it can be fun! Sure, there can be emotional trauma, awkward moments, broken hearts, impetuous late-night phone calls that you wish you could take back the next day. But these are downsides associated with life, not with sex per se.

But as a society, we’re too uptight and hypocritical to say these things. Instead, we get stuff like abstinence-only sex ed, with predictable results. And adolescence, which isn’t going to be an easy time of life for most people no matter how much sensible advice they are given, becomes just that much more agonizing and uncertain.

Except for engineers, of course! They have it figured out.

  • smadin

    I think the message is supposed to come across something like this: no method of non-abstinence birth control is 100% effective (a vacuously true claim almost on par with “evolution is just a theory”…), therefore if you have sex you’re throwing away your future because you’re going to get pregnant/get someone pregnant.
    (Bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, since the one demonstrably real effect of abstinence-only “sex education” is to make teenagers significantly more ignorant about birth control, and thus more likely not to use it properly or at all, and end up pregnant.)

  • kubi

    That’s a photoshop, dude. It’s been floating around since at least 2004.

  • JRQ

    Ah, but what are they doing to make a future of engineering sound better to teens than a future of sex?

  • yo

    this might explain a shortage of engineers.
    they are not procreating so their population
    is dwindling.

  • Sean

    You think it’s a photoshop? I hate falling for stuff like that. But I don’t think it is. Regardless, the “Sex Can Wait” campaign is frighteningly real.

  • tacitus

    The biggest nightmare of the religious right is entirely consequence-free sex (at least, physically). At some point in the future (though probably not for a few decades yet) contraception will be 100% reliable and STDs will be a thing of the past.

    I just finished reading Peter Hamilton’s “The Dreaming Void” which is set over 1,000 years into the future. His characters, who all live indefinitely in perfect twenty-something bodies, spend an awful lot of time indulging in all sorts of sexual activity, including one person who has multiple cloned bodies all controlled by one interconnected brain. Imagine the possibilities…

    I think Hamilton has it spot on. Sexual mores will be driven more and more by advances in technology — medical and otherwise — as it has already begun to with the advent of the pill. When we reach the stage where we are all living 500 years in ageless Brangelina bodies (alas, not in time for us) then I have no doubt that they will be put to use as frequently as physically possible. Ancient customs such as marriage and fidelity will be forced to adapt.

  • SamuelRiv

    Prof. Trodden might appreciate this: according to undergrads at Case Western Reserve, that billboard is an accurate description of reality. So what’s the big deal?

    Seriously, this had us all rolling in laughter on the Case chats last week.

  • Eugene

    I can tell you, when I was studying to be an engineer, I want sex too. Like, real bad, man.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Kids who learn only abstinence only sex education stand a good chance of becoming parents. :-)

    If this is all there is to the “campaign” then it is dishonest. Without educational programs to interest kids in engineering or science this billboard is just another noise factor.

    I am not so sure that sex is a good thing for teenagers, particularly the younger ones, even with birth control or protection methods. It projects them into emotional relationships they are not prepared for. Abstinence might be a good idea, but the social lives of young people needs to be enriched in ways to provide alternatives. Without that this so called sex education is a waste of time.

    The culture wars, along with the whole abortion issue, are things that as time goes on I wish would just go away.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Elliot

    maybe sex “can” wait. But should it?

    This type of nonsense is in direct conflict with the hormonal messages that healthy adolescents are experiencing.

    I believe there was a study showing that abstinence programs are ineffective and that kids who pledge to “save themselves” are actually no more or less likely to actually engage in sexual activity than those who do not make the pledge.


  • enlightened

    Sex is a dirty, disgusting, primitive, and highly selfish thing. A nasty consequence of our barbaric evolution (so far). It doesn’t have to continue. Abstinence, in-vitro, and genetic engineering are some ways out, among others. Evolve to a higher plateau!

  • Mark

    Sex is a dirty, disgusting, primitive, and highly selfish thing.

    Sure, but you don’t have to do it that way.

  • Farhat

    Sex is a dirty, disgusting, primitive, and highly selfish thing.

    Only if done properly!

  • Eugene

    Man, if #11 is a girl, I am not dating her.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    “Sex is a dirty, disgusting, primitive, and highly selfish thing.” That is why it is so much fun. Remember, flowers are all about plant sex. Sex is what made this planet’s biota bloom into the large diverse forms that now exist.

    I always wondered how Brontosaurs got it on.

    L. C.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    But these are downsides associated with life, not with sex per se.


    Obviously. The real message is life can wait.

  • Ijon Tichy

    A study of Wellesley College students found that 83% of Mathematics students and 83% of Chemistry students were virgins, while only 43% of Spanish students, 20% of Anthropology students, and 0% of Studio Art students were virgins.

    In a nationwide study of young adults, it was found that by age 19, 80% of males, 75% of females and 87% of college students have had sex. In contrast, 56% of Princeton undergraduates, 59% of Harvard undergraduates, and 51% of M.I.T. undergraduates have had sex by age 19. Interestingly, 35% of M.I.T. graduate students are virgins.

  • Tom

    The abstinance message is just another red herring. Just like Intelligent Design is nothing more than disguised Creationism – so abstinance is just another disguise for dissing pre-marital sex.

  • Count Iblis

    Are there any theories about why talking about sex was/is a taboo? Our recent Chimp-like ancestors presumably had sex in plain view of others, which would be completely taboo today. But at some point, sex and even talking about it became taboo. When and why did that happen?

  • ree ree

    Quick guess: when money/economics was invented or when marriage was invented. In those days, sex=children, marriage=money. Sex before marriage = children with no money = bad.

  • daisyrose

    Sex without love is boring and stupid unless of course its a “really hot threesome” and you don t have to see them again – till next time.

  • Luke

    Count Iblis: I don’t think that there was ever a point historically when sex itself was taboo. Any culture which had such a taboo would die out. The relevant example would be the Shaker religion, which no has only a few members.

    The taboo in most cultures is about sex outside of marriage. The reason for that probably had to do with disease and child-rearing. Trying to keep sex within marriage was probably a very good ides centuries ago before the invention of penicillin and The Pill.

    Smadin: You mention the obvious fact that “no method of non-abstinence birth control is 100% effective”. This means that, for at least some girls, teenage sex will lead to one of two things – 1) childbirth or 2) abortion. Try to think of a typical American 13 year old. Maybe you have a daughter, relative, or neighbor of that age. Does the idea of such a girl having a baby or getting an abortion not concern you?

    Come to think of it, most of these posts emphasizing only the fun side of sex seem to be coming from the male point of view. Of course, men don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. I’d like to see some more posts from women. I’ve heard that many girls who become sexually active at a very young age later come to regret it. Please, female CV people, share you opinions!

  • Luke

    Hey, Ijon Tichy: Your post with the percentages is written as if it came from a news story. You made it up, correct?

  • BRB

    Eugene said: “Man, if #11 is a girl, I am not dating her.”

    But if he’s a guy?

  • Jeremy Chapman

    I promise that’s not photoshop, I took a picture of one of those billboards and then I photoshopped my engineer classmate/friend’s face on it. College can be fun for engineers too.

  • Blake Stacey

    Fine, so sex can wait. But what about drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Do we have to wait until tenure to start with the “edible panties, firearms and blow”?

  • B

    The immaturity of our cultural attitudes toward sex is flat-out embarrassing.

    Well, at least it is decidedly weird (much like the US attitude towards alcohol). Otoh, the fertility rate in the USA is higher than almost anywhere else in the so-called developed world. The NYT recently had a very interesting article about the decreasing population in Europe titled No Babies?. Especially in Germany I’ve repeatedly read complaints about young women in academia who don’t properly reproduce (one gets touchy on the issue at some point). Makes me wonder whether one day I’ll get advertisements saying “It’s our Future! Have sex! The paper can wait.”


  • Brett

    I’m pretty sure Ijon Tichy’s statistics came from Counterpoint–the MIT/Wellesley journal of rational discourse. Not a high quality or scientific source. The used to do those sex surveys every year or so, and back when the magazine was a least marginally respectable, they got pretty substantial numbers of responses. I’m not saying this is accurate, but one survey they did during that period gave virginity rates at MIT starting at 80% for freshmen and falling about 20% per year, with graduation students at about 15%.

  • Lab Lemming

    Ijon’s numbers come from here:

    Anecdotally. back when I went to high school there were a reasonably number of people who put off dating until college applicaitons went in- and they generally were more successful at getting into the 4-year institutions that offer education degrees than were those who were chasing tail since freshman year.

    Can somebody please explain to me how “Sex can wait” = “Abstinence only”?

  • Lab Lemming

    I meant engineering degree, not education. Perhaps I should have interrupted this orgy-in-progress long enough to proofread…

  • Aramael

    Why is sex seen as something optional? In that the small chance of something unwanted happening (pregnancy, disease) implies that you shouldn’t be doing it at all — unlike, say, drinking, driving, walking down the street and eating peanuts (you could choke, and it’s not like peanuts are necessary or anything).

    Luke@22: boy, I sure would not have wanted to become pregnant at 13. But what does that have to do with anything? Did somebody start demanding that 13 year olds should have more sex? I think the point is that US society (not Dutch, luckily) is so unbelievably prudish on this issue, which causes many more problems than it solves. You know people who regret getting sexually active at a young age, I know people who don’t. I also know people who regret not dying their hair purple when they were young enough to pull it off (she looks out of the mirror at me daily, and she’s pissed off). So what? Proof by anecdote still doesn’t hold water.

  • Chris Oakley

    It is quite clear to me from this that the Cold War is still with us. I bet Vladimir Putin himself dreamed this up: a poster campaign that implies that becoming an engineer is “uncool”. Starved of students, the United States will be deprived of an entire generation of qualified native-born engineers and be forced to rely on immigrants for all the key technical jobs.

    Come to think of it – maybe this has happened already.

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  • Pineyman

    Way back when I was a teenager (mid-70s), I read a SF story that had the radical notion (for the time) that the way to get around all those raging hormones was to pair a teenage male with a mid-thirties female for a given amount of time. That way sex drives are compatible and all that energy is put to good use….

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  • The Almighty Bob

    Aramael: who says you can’t pull it off now?
    Just find something messy to do no-one in Authority will go near, so they won’t see you until it’s grown out. Or refuse to acknowledge there’s any difference to them. Or any of a dozen other tactics.
    There were a couple of years I made a point of asking what the prospective employer’s attitude to dyed hair would be whenever I went for an interview… I have since made my way through the entire colour range available locally, and feel like I can relax about it. “,)

  • Luke

    Aramael: You ask if someone is demanding that 13 year olds have sex. I never claimed that anyone on this blog was making such a demand explicitly. This blog article starts with a picture of a billboard (whose authenticity has not yet been established) with the message is “sex can wait”. Sean and most of the posters here disagree with sending that message, which implies that they oppose waiting and want kids to start enjoying sex at an early age, perhaps soon after the onset of puberty.

    Also, I wasn’t trying to prove anything by anecdote. I was trying to introduce another point of view into the discussion here. Of course, that was my mistake. This blog rarely resembles a discussion. People don’t listen to the arguments of others. It’s more like a collection of message scrawled on a bathroom wall.

    I agree with another The Almighty Bob’s point. Certainly, if there is no age that is too young for kids to have sex, there is no age too old to dye your hair purple.

    I went and downloaded that PDF from the Counterpoint web site. I’m not sure what to make of all of those percentages. I suppose that one could say that it supports the billboard’s message. Perhaps sexual activity in high school is negatively correlated with academic success. That could make for an interesting study. Maybe kids who start having sex at an early age are more likely to drop out of high school and maybe kids who “wait” are more likely to be accepted to elite colleges. Does anyone know if there a sudy out there on this?

  • Tal

    Sex is like driving: Because of the huge potential of life-altering consequences for doing it wrong, it’s best to leave it to people whose brains are developed enough to understand and plan for that level of responsibility.

    And it’s not just disease or pregnancy. It’s issues of consent, pressuring people to do things they’re not comfortable with, outright assault, lying to people to get them to have sex, not understanding when someone older or with more social power is taking advantage of your naivete, relationship stuff… a whole host of emotional and interpersonal issues that are extremely complex and therefore take a complex brain to cope with.

    However, as with driving, it’s reasonable to assume that most people with normal mental and emotional development are ready to do so in a healthy and responsible way about age 15 or 16. Their brains aren’t fully finished developing (the frontal lobe isn’t fully established until age 23 or so) but they’re capable enough of complex reasoning to navigate the issues around sex.

    Even as little as 100 years ago, this was not a problem because that’s about when kids started having much in the way of sexual desire. Puberty started at 14 or so, and around 16, they were ready to go. Within a year or two, they were married and making babies.

    But our modern life has created two serious problems:

    1. Kids are physically developing a hell of a lot faster. A friend who works in education says he’s seen girls as young as 6 with the first stages of breast development. Brain development, however, is not accelerated, creating little kids with a ton of hormones and no concept of how to handle them.

    2. We no longer live in an agrarian society in which success in life depends solely on understanding how to take over the family farm. Survival in our complex world requires complex training. Childhood isn’t fully over until college is. And that means that people aren’t in a practical position to marry and raise children of their own until they’re well into their late 20s.

    In short: Early puberty + a late start to self-sufficiency = a much, much longer period of time in which a given person is going to have sexual desire without the ability to handle the potential consequences of an unintended pregnancy.

    Now, the hardcore anti-sex (and anti-pleasure) Puritans would have us believe that people really are supposed to totally, completely resist any and all expressions of sexual desire for 10-15 years.

    Most of us, however, understand that this is ridiculously impractical.

    So what do we do instead?

    Three things:

    1. Work on curbing the environmental factors that are artificially accelerating puberty. This includes things like ensuring that water supplies are free of traces of hormones, getting rid of BPA, hormone-altered food supplies, etc.

    2. Work on foolproof, inexpensive contraception and disease prevention options.

    3. Promote–yes, promote–masturbation as an acceptable alternative to involving a partner in satisfying one’s sexual needs.

    I would be horrified if my 12-year-old were fooling around with the neighbor’s kid. But if she wanted a lot of private time in her room? No worries. Have at it. It’s perfectly safe sex, it’s actually physically healthy (yay pelvic blood flow) and there are no worries of disease, pregnancy or serious emotional damage that may come from someone who doesn’t understand the complexity of mature sexual relationships.

  • Jud

    Interestingly, 35% of M.I.T. graduate students are virgins.

    Phone numbers, man, phone numbers please.

  • Yvette

    Regarding the statistics given about college students and virginity- am I the only one who thinks asking a bunch of 19 year olds how much they have sex is going to yield slightly skewed results?

  • Blake Stacey

    I think the message is supposed to come across something like this: no method of non-abstinence birth control is 100% effective


    Just sayin’.

  • Blake Stacey

    Yvette (#40),

    Well, naturally, all the countervailing cultural pressures to over- or under-report one’s activity cancel each other out exactly.

  • Jimbo

    As an undergrad Engr. at the Univ.of Florida in 1973, it was painfully obvious: Engineers were NOT getting laid ! They were just toooo nerdy, & were out of touch with the tenor of the times….I later switched to physics out of frustration with the boring engr. cirriculum, which in turn empowered my already out-of-control ego, and Lo & Behold, I started to get laid !
    The `immoral’ of my story: Chix would rather have their Hamiltonians diagonalized, then their shunts short-circuited. Keep this in mind while deciding on your major.

  • Naomi

    Aramael- You asked if anyone is really demanding 13-year-olds to have more sex.

    Sadly, the answer is yes. Just as girls (and boys) receive pressure from peers and the media to wear certain clothes, weigh a certain amount, read certain things, and think a certain way, they also receive pressure from these sources to have sex. (I believe the virgin stereotype has already been deemed uncool by this message board.)

    So the propaganda comes from both extremes of the controversy: advertisements like the one above implying that one cannot become an engineer if they have sex as well as social pressure implying that a person is doomed to an eternity of geekiness if they do not have sex by a certain age.

    Sadder still is that our education system fails teenagers horribly by offering nothing but abstinence only sex education. The United States Federal Government will pour $50 million dollars this year into grants for states who will provide a 75 percent match in funds for abstinence only education in public schools. (This is 28 states the last time I checked.) This means that the 13-year-old girl mentioned in Luke’s post will not be armed with the information enabling her to make a wise decision about whether or not to have sex. She will have no idea how an abortion is performed or what a traumatic procedure it could be for a girl that young. Many teens are more than smart enough to decide for themselves whether or not to have sex, if only they had a reliable source of information on the truth of the matter with which to base their decision making process on.

    The saddest thing of all is that this failure of our public education system turns the personal decision of sexual activity over to media companies and public and religious institutions. When kids do not have information to base a personal decision on, they succumb to outside pressure. When all this pressure goes uncombated by the promotion of education and rational thought, it damages the impressionable psyche of a young teenager and dibilitates independent thinking.

    And the saddest of all sad things is that kids have to trust public education for sex education in the first place because teenage sex is such a taboo and controversial subject that kids cannot trust their parents or older role models for reliable and truthful information about sex, birth control, pregnancy, abortion, and the whole shebang.

  • Aramael

    Luke: it looks like a discussion to me … I did read what you wrote, the second time as well, and I don’t think you made the case that people want people to start having sex younger; the point is that young people are having sex, so how should we approach this? Promoting abstinence has the advantage of teaching a method that is 100% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy and spread of STDs. Unfortunately, it has one fatal flaw: it doesn’t work.

    Acknowledging that young people have sex, and wishing that people were not so prudish about it, is not the same as encouraging them. Indeed, being less prudish and more open gives them a better chance of making the right decision for themselves.

  • Jason Dick


    I don’t think it requires any appeal to outside pressure to see that young people might want to have sex. The human sex drive is exceedingly powerful in most people, after all.

  • John Knight

    Contrary to the Conventional Wisdom, abstinence education appears to significantly decrease early sexual activity & teenage pregnancy.

  • Luis

    Paraphrasing the late George Carlin:

    “Why is it that people who are against sex education are people you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?”

  • James

    I’m often surprised how much my culture (American) implies that sex is a reflection of a person’s worth. We act as if not having sex until a later age reflects something wrong with the plumbing or a general unattractiveness in the individual. There are immense pressures on young people (especially young adults) to have sex. I phrase things abstractly here, but there are very specific examples.

    For example, I myself am a 23-yo male who does not consider sex a priority at the moment. I am waiting for someone with whom I can make the kinds of commitments I am comfortable with. I am aware of the attachment the act will generate in me for that person and I do not want to tread there lightly. I believe there should be something of a ritual surrounding such a profound act.

    Yet this attitude is considered deviant! People explain me away by calling me “gay” or not having “the balls” to do it. I am comfortable with my decision, by I won’t pretend that these frequent reminders don’t bother me or cause self-doubt.

    Either way, I think it’s crazy that my attitude is so easily scoffed at.

  • daisyrose

    Animals in fable have been used through out the history of the world to express human traits – We City dwellers neuter our pets and have no idea how animals breed or relate to each other- This is too bad; for any person with an imagination; who has had the privilege to ride and handle – say a well mannered stallion can see themselves and *others* in these goings on.

    Mostly it is pretty dangerous stuff for everyone involved – in fact most male animals are either eliminated, neutered, kept isolated or trained as engineers.

  • daisyrose

    That domesticated – in the wild anything goes!

  • Eugene

    James #49

    You totally miss the point. We are not scoffing at your attitude (perfectly reasonable). We are scoffing at people who wants to paint a false dichotomy between “having a career” and “having sex”.

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  • Aramael

    Naomi, I agree with everything you wrote. Personally, I was too distracted when I was growing up to notice any pressure (and you know, I do miss those years when the boys were too nervous/inexperienced to cope with anything more than hours of what I now recognise as foreplay) (well, not really, it’s all a bit awkward) (darn, I’m suffering from an attack of parenthecitis again). But I have two nieces at the moment; the older one is growing up really, really fast, and I hope she comes to her Auntie A before she does anything she might regret.

    (Look at me simultaneous arguing for less prudishness while not wanting a young person to rush into having sex!)

  • Aramael

    John Knight: conservative web site releases study that not only contradicts every other study ever done on the issue, but promotes their particular right wing world view! I’m dying of not surprise.

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  • John Knight

    Aramael: If you actually read the article, you will notice that it cites several different studies that report positive results for abstinence-based programs.

    From a social-science standpoint, the difference between these studies and the Conventional-Wisdom studies appears to be that the CW studies do not adequately control for demographic variables. I

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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