Why Many Pre-Teen Boys Are Having Sex

They are as likely to rate the sex as “wanted” as boys who have sex later.

Posted May 22, 2019

morrowlight/Shutterstock
Source: morrowlight/Shutterstock

We take as a golden rule of sex education that we should prevent sexual intercourse among pre-teenagers.

Researchers Lindberg and associates note that young people having sex before age 13 delivers the message that we need “early, inclusive, and comprehensive sex education as well as sexual and reproductive health care to male children and adolescents.” Yet, the “developmental needs and pathways to healthy trajectories for young males remain unknown.” Their study takes the first step by identifying boys (the absence of girls is not explained) who have sex at an early age—defined as prior to age 13. Why 13? That’s the data they had available.

Across a large national dataset, nearly 20,000 high school boys completed a school-based written questionnaire. The boys stated their age when they first had sexual intercourse, without reference to the sex or age of the partner.

Findings

1. African-American (19 percent) boys were more likely than Hispanic (9 percent) or White (4 percent) boys to report early sex, with an 8 percent average for the total sample. The higher rate for black youths held regardless of sociodemographic variables.

2. Boys whose mothers had at least a college degree were less likely to have sex before age 13.

3. In terms of wanting intercourse, the responses were as follows:

     (a) Nine percent reported, “I really didn’t want it to happen at the time.”

     (b) Thirty-seven percent reported, “I had mixed feelings—part of me wanted it to happen at the time, and part of me didn’t."

     (c) Fifty-five percent reported, “I really wanted it to happen at the time.”

4. These numbers were not significantly different from those who had first intercourse at age 13 or older.

5. The first sexual partner was usually a friend.

The authors propose that this race/ethnicity difference might be because “for young men of color, particularly black males, racist stereotypes of hypermasculinity may also contribute to expectations of early sexual initiation.” That is, that black youths are merely following a cultural script about what masculinity means: Start having sex early and have it often.

Despite the youths saying they wanted the early sex they had, the authors tend to view early sex as an “unhealthy sexual choice,” because it has been associated by researchers with an increased prevalence of many negative physical (e.g., risky sexual behavior) and mental health (e.g., depression) outcomes.

They also recognize that adolescent experts are not of one voice regarding the “best” biological or chronological age to transition from being a virgin to a nonvirgin, because youths vary immensely in their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development—it’s possible for a 13-year-old to be more “ready” for sex than a 16-year-old. 

The study tells us nothing about the circumstances of the sex, or why a pre-teen boy had sex. The authors suggest that perhaps childhood sexual abuse was at play, or the boy had little parental engagement or guidance.

I would suggest that another scenario is that the opportunity for sex simply presented itself as a realistic possibility; he went for it, and, now older, the boy says he wanted the experience—whether for pleasure, to prove something, for bragging rights, or some other idiosyncratic reason.

The authors give considerable attention to the likely absence of sex education in the boys’ lives—though I would have emphasized more the inadequacies of whatever sex ed they might have had. We already know that parents—educated or not—seldom provide timely or accurate sex guidance or information to their sons.

Although the authors point out that “sex education guidelines recommend providing children with comprehensive sex education starting at least by kindergarten, and clinical care guidelines recommend clinicians set time alone with young patients to address confidential care inclusive of sexual health starting during early adolescence,” most boys (and girls I would guess) engage in sex before having meaningful sex education (that is, beyond “just say no”).

The messages received in those classes are not particularly helpful if they are oriented to merely preventing or delaying sexual onset, even for those for whom that message is too late.

Critical Messages

1. We need comprehensive sex education that is culturally informed and inclusive, beginning many years before puberty and before a youth’s first sexual encounter.

2. Many adults, professional or not, stigmatize and pathologize early sex, which likely causes more harm than good.

3. If early sex is perceived as fulfilling the dictates of traditional masculinity, then we need to develop a more inclusive notion of masculinity.

4. As the authors suggest, health education and counseling services should be readily available for young males who experience unwanted sexual encounters. 

5. Given that so many of the boys wanted sex at an early age, we need to ask about their views and their perspective about the encounter(s). As the authors write, “This finding underscores the need to include young men’s views when identifying and interpreting their sexual and developmental trajectories.” 

I wish we knew more about the partners. Were they male or female? What was the situation, and why did so many of the boys want sex? How sure are the authors regarding the truthfulness of the boys’ reports of first sex? Were the jokesters and mischievous respondents deleted? I wait for follow-up studies and research that includes girls.

Facebook Image: morrowlight/Shutterstock

References

Lindberg, L.D., Maddow-Zimet, I., & Marcell, A.V. (2019). Prevalence of sexual initiation before age 13 years among male adolescents and young adults in the United States. JAMA Pediatrics (April 08, 2019). doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.0458

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