Teens and Sex

Why teens start having sex in the first place. Environment, age of partner and perceived family support may affect young people's decisions to have sex.

By Alison Calabia, published on July 1, 2001 - last reviewed on September 26, 2005

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

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