Sexual Health Roundup: The Pill Improved Women’s Earning Capacity; Puberty Happens Earlier

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Sexual Health Roundup: The Pill Improved Women’s Earning Capacity; Puberty Happens Earlier

Martha Kempner

Study finds women with earlier access to the pill have had greater earning potential over the course of their lives; a NYT article examines the phenomenon of early puberty; April is STD Awareness Month.   

Welcome to our new Weekly Sexual Health Roundup! Each week, writer and sexual health expert Martha Kempner will summarize news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STDs, and more.  We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.

Study Shows Access to the Pill Improved Women’s Earning Capacity Over Time

In case there is any doubt that access to birth control is essential to women (and on the flip side that the ongoing war on this access is a war on women), a new study out of the University of Michigan has found that access to birth control over the past 50 years has led to higher pay and better careers for women. 

Researchers analyzed data from the Labor Force Study which began in 1968.  The 4,300 women who participated were between 14 and 24 at the time of their first interview and were interviewed every year until 2003. Based on the laws of the states in which the women resided, the researchers were able to determine if the women had early access to the birth control pill without parental consent (age 18) or late access (not until 21).

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They concluded that those who had access to the pill in their late teens and early 20s tended to be better educated and better paid 20 years later.  In fact by the eighties and nineties, women who had early access to the pill were making 8 percent more than those who didn’t.  As Martha Bailey, one of the study’s authors, explained:

“As the pill provided younger women the expectation of greater control over childbearing, women invested more in their human capital and careers.” Bailey went on to say that the women who saw the most gains were those who completed some college.   

According to researchers, two-thirds of the wage bump came from these women having greater workplace experience while the rest came from women gaining more education and choosing more lucrative fields. Bailey notes that the study likely underestimates the role of the pill, because it did not take into account the effect of pill use differences after age 20 or so.

Article Examines the Phenomenon of Early Puberty

An in-depth article by Elizabeth Weil in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine examines the phenomenon of early puberty by looking both at personal experiences and evolving scientific explanations of changes in menarche.  The article tells the stories of girls who grew pubic hair as young as six and breast buds at seven and their parents who are searching for both a cause and a solution.

Research from 2010 confirms that by age seven years, 10 percent of white girls, 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and two percent of Asian girls have started developing breasts but there is disagreement about what is causing this and whether it really is puberty. 

As the article explains, puberty in girls includes three events: breast buds, pubic hair, and first period.  While the age of the first two may be going down, the average age of first periods among young girls has remained relatively stable, dropping only to 12.5 from 12.8 since the 1970s. 

Moreover, true puberty starts in the brain with the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH, which essentially tells the pituitary gland  to turn on the ovaries which in turn begin to produce estrogen, the hormone responsible for the changes.  Weil interviewed several scientists who believe that this cycle has not actually begun in at least some of the girls who are experiencing puberty-like changes. These scientists are now attempting to determine where “non-ovarian” estrogens are coming from.  The article discusses the impact of estrogens in the environment as well as that of body-mass index and obesity.  It also notes studies that have shown the impact of family environment on the age at which a young girl begins puberty (notably the presence or absence of a father in the home and a girl’s age when her parents divorced).

Finally the article focuses on the effects of early puberty which can be both physical and emotional.  Among the physical risks: “Puberty includes a final growth spurt, after which girls mostly stop growing. If that growth spurt starts too early in life, it ends at an early age too, meaning a child will have fewer growing years total.”  The emotional risks are more complicated:

We know that girls who develop ahead of their peers tend to have lower self-esteem, more depression and more eating disorders. They start drinking and lose their virginity sooner. They have more sexual partners and more sexually transmitted diseases.” Of course, these are in large part a result of how peers and adults treat young women who develop early.

Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?” is a compelling read and certainly made this mother of two girls stop and think. 

April is STD Awareness Month

As we step into spring and celebrate the return of sun and flowers, the CDC and sexual health organizations around the country are commemorating STD Awareness Month.  This annual observance began in 2009 and seeks “to raise public awareness about the impact of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) on the lives of Americans and the importance of preventing, testing for, and treating STDs.”

The CDC and other organizations have created the GYT: Get Yourself Tested campaign to encourage and normalize testing for STDs, and connect young people to testing centers.  GYT distributes materials to help spread the word through posters, banner ads, widgets, and more. More importantly, it allows young people to enter their zip code into the website and be connected to a testing center in their area.