Teens and Sex

While the media bombards us with alarming statistics about the number of teenagers having sex, few reports shed light on what might encourage teens to become sexually active in the first place. Three studies offer some insight into sexually active teens: environment, age of partner and perceived family support may affect young people's decisions to have sex.

In a study presented at a meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA), researchers at the University of Kentucky followed 950 teenagers at 17 high schools in Kentucky and Ohio from 9th to 11th grades. They found evidence that teens who have intercourse tend to think their friends are too, even if they're not. "You're 2.5 times more likely to have sex by the 9th grade if you think your friends are having sex -- whether or not they really are," says Katharine Atwood, assistant professor at the Kentucky School of Public Health. Plus, teens tended to overestimate how many of their friends were sexually active. Only 33 percent of kids in the study had had sex by the 9th grade, but 31 percent said that most or all of their friends had had sex. "If you can persuade them that fewer are having sex than they think," she says, "that can have a significant impact on their behavior."

Among young girls, a partner's age is a risk factor for sexual activity. "The younger the girl is at the age of first intercourse, the more likely she is to have a much older partner," says Harold Leitenberg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. His study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that of 4,201 girls in 8th through 12th grades, those who lost their virginity between ages 11 and 12 tended to have partners five or more years older. For girls who had sex later in adolescence, the partner's age disparity was much smaller. Early sexual initiation was also associated with a number of behavioral problems. "Ignoring the age of the partners, the earlier a girl was when she first had intercourse, the greater her risk of suicide attempts, alcohol use, drug abuse, truancy and pregnancy," Leitenberg says.

The good news is that while teen sex may not be wholly preventable, the health risks it involves can be reduced through communication within the family. More research presented at the APHA meeting showed that frequent parent-child discussions about sex and its dangers may prevent teenagers from engaging in risky sexual behavior. Researchers at Emory University questioned 522 sexually active African-American adolescents about the openness and support that their families provided. Adolescents who felt that their families were more supportive were less likely to have unprotected sex, and thus were at a lesser risk for pregnancy and disease.

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