In what may be a shock to some adolescent girls, protective fathers, and the characters of movies set in high schools, researchers at Bowling Green State University have found that teenage boys value an emotional connection in their romantic relationships, instead of just sex.
Interviews with 1,316 Lucas County teenagers show many boys actually desire - though seldom express in conversations with peers - an affectionate devotion to their girlfriends that matches the attitudes of their female counterparts, according to an article in the current issue of American Sociological Review written by three BGSU professors.
"Yeah, I'm like a little girl in a relationship," said Steve, 17, whose last name was withheld from the academic article. "Like, every time I was around her, I couldn't talk. I was getting butterflies in my stomach. I just was, like, discombobulated or something."
Previous academic work has suggested that boys displayed the ruthlessness of a Wall Street trader when talking about sex, reducing girls to "the level of commodities" with dialogue that consisted of "consumers exchanging information," notes the article by Peggy Giordano, Monica Longmore, and Wendy Manning, BGSU sociology professors associated with the school's Center for Family and Demographic Research.
"The boys surprised us the most, because in the literature there's a portrait of boys being disengaged from the relationship side and more interested in the sexual side," Ms. Giordano said.
Graduating seniors at Rogers High School in Toledo agreed that the BGSU study tapped heartfelt sentiments often buried by masculine posturing.
"They act like they don't really care and they're playing games, but they still care," Erin Parchment, 18, said of her dating experiences.
The expectations created by films and television shows are partially to blame for the assumption that teenage boys enter into relationships exclusively for sex, said Peris Edwards, who intends to play football next year at Miami University.
"It's that stereotype, like, that boys aren't supposed to cry," Mr. Edwards, 18, said. "I cry when I want. I cried at prom because I'm going to miss everybody."
Despite the universality of love, a topic that permeates academic disciplines stretching from evolutionary biology to 17th-century sonnets, there is minimal research into the inner feelings of a beguiled teenage boy, the article claims. Most existing research addresses girls' feelings on romance.
A 1994 study by Daniel Wight, who researched sexual behavior for the University of Glasgow in Scotland, concluded: "The main excitement of girlfriends is the challenge of chatting them up and getting off with them; once this has been achieved going out with the girl becomes tedious."
The ongoing BGSU study, which began in 1999 and will continue through 2008 courtesy of $2.7 million in grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, contradicts key elements of this analysis.
Controlling for race, age, gender, self-esteem, romantic history, and family structure, researchers used the interviews to chart the extent that teenage couples communicate, their confidence in dealing with romantic issues, their levels of emotional engagement, and how they influence each other.
After the initial round of interviews and surveys, a female researcher conducted additional interviews with 100 teenagers about their relationships, providing anecdotes to back up the statistical conclusions.
The responses indicated that youths involved in long-term relationships and those living with both parents were more likely to experience a heightened emotional attachment, but incidents of sexual intercourse are unrelated to differences in "adolescents' reports of feelings of love."
Nor did sexual intercourse affect perceptions of how teenage couples influence each other. The BGSU study also determined that girlfriends actively influence their boyfriends' choices, a sign that the balance of power is not inherently lopsided toward testosterone.
Ms. Giordano said that the study's results could re-shape how schools teach sex education, enabling lesson plans to move away from a clinical approach to one that is more personal.
"Many prevention efforts are focused on things like providing young people with more knowledge about health risks," Ms. Giordano said. "We think young people would have much more interest in talking about these things if curricula were much more focused on relationships."
Asked if the boys surveyed might have employed an age-old tactic and merely told their female interviewer what women want to hear, Ms. Giordano said the depth and length of the narratives, one of which lasted 74 pages, proved the statements were genuine.
"We had prior research that may have been conducted by males, who hung around with boys in different settings," she said. "We know that side of it. I don't think boys would be able to sustain as long a narrative as they did if they were just trying to B.S. the interviewer or impress the interviewer."
Blade staff writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.
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