Poverty linked to early sexual activity in kids

IOWA STATE (US)—A study of nearly 1,000 low-income families in three major American cities finds that, on average, children start having sex around age 12.

“So if 12 years was the average age here, that meant that some kids were starting at 10 or younger,” says study coauthor Brenda Lohman, an Iowa State University associate professor of human development and family studies. “A handful of kids reported having sex as early as 8 or 9. We know from our follow-up interviews that one boy who reported having sexual intercourse for the first time at age nine had fathered four children by the time he was 18.”

The study analyzes data from a six-year longitudinal investigation of low-income families living in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio and is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Children and Youth Services Review.

“Those people who say that kids don’t have sex at that young of age should think again,” says Lohman. “Definitely the age is the most shocking thing about this study.”

Interview data for the study was first collected in 1999 on youth between the ages of 10 and 14, and again in 2001. Lohman says she also has data collected in 2006 from the same subjects, who were between 16 and 20 by that time.

In the study, boys reported their first sexual intercourse at younger ages (averaging 12.48) than girls (13.16). Boys also had nearly 10 percent higher frequency of intercourse than girls and were also more likely to experience sexual debut (20 percent to 14 percent) between the two years when the first two waves of data were collected.

Recent national research has found that 13 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys have had sex by the time they are 16. Lohman says that means the rate of sex among her low-income sample is only slightly higher among the girls, but almost double among the boys

“The ages [of sexual debut] are a bit younger than the national samples, but not alarmingly so,” she notes.

African Americans also had 12 percent more early sexual intercourse than whites (29 to 17 percent respectively), although racial differences did not affect the age of their first intercourse.

The authors report that welfare and periods of instability in family structure are risk factors for early sexual activity. They found that additional maternal education—beyond a high school level—was found to inhibit some of that activity.

“That can be for multiple reasons,” Lohman says. “It can be that mothers have better paying jobs and more stable home environment, and they’re less likely to be in stressful circumstances. It could also be that mothers then have greater cognitive capacities to sort of sit down and discuss the pros and cons of waiting to have sex until you’re older.”

For that reason, the researchers propose allotting public funding to increase maternal education as a way to reduce early sexual promiscuity among  children.

The study also found the youths’ involvement in delinquent acts drastically increases the chances of early sexual activity.

Because of the gender differences in sexual debut, the authors also urge more gender-specific prevention programs that are implemented at earlier ages, especially among high risk populations.

“It may be that boys and girls, starting at younger ages, should have these programs that are designed separately by gender before they’re moved back together over time,” Lohman says. “And yes, they must start much, much younger than they do now. You have to start before those young kids—10 or even younger—start becoming sexually active.”

Tina Jordahl, a former Iowa State graduate student who is now a market research specialist with Hospice of Central Iowa, collaborated on the study.

Iowa State University news: http://www.news.iastate.edu/