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Too much TV, low self esteem and a bad relationship with your folks? A recipe for early teen sex – but not, apparently, a life of deliquency

November 13th, 2007

Dr Petra

Two pieces of sex research out today have some rather interesting findings about teen sex and relationships. The first is a study of 273 young people by psychologists Janet Shibley Hyde and Myeshia Price. They followed a group of children over a two year period and identified a number of key factors that contributed to teens having early sexual experiences. These were having low self esteem, parents with a low educational background, watching lots of TV (with a high sexual content) and having behavioural problems (such as ADHD).

The media have described these factors as a ‘recipe’ for early sex, but that’s not quiet the right analogy. The research coverage doesn’t make it clear whether any one of these factors contributes to early sexual activity, or whether you need the whole lot to have an early sexual debut. My guess is the former, but it hasn’t been clear from coverage so far. And to be honest it’s likely if you’ve got one of these triggers in your life it’s likely you’ll have a couple more anyway.

Here’s why. I’m generalising here, but if your parents aren’t all that well educated they may not feel too good about themselves. So they won’t be able to help you feel good about yourself either. They may have to work long hours in minimum wage jobs so they won’t be around to supervise you, or perhaps they won’t have a job which will add to their feelings of low self esteem and not help you much either. If you’ve got behavioural problems your folks may lack the resources to help you with them, or you may be branded as being from a poor or dysfunctional family and so your problems will be attributed to that rather than any help being given. Because your folks aren’t able to care for you as they might like you may find you get to spend more time with the TV, and without much parental input you can choose to watch anything you want. And anything you want will probably be the raunchiest stuff you can find. This will give you all kinds of ideas about sex, but your folks aren’t going to be able to give you the life skills to interpret these sexual messages. And because you don’t feel so confident in yourself you may coerce others into sexual behaviour or find it very difficult to resist someone pressurising you.

Which all sounds very simple, but in fact these are the kind of complex situations sex educators need to be addressing. The research shows it’s more than just ‘media effects’ causing sexual behaviour. It’s the interaction of numerous factors – and related issues of poverty, access to healthcare and education, and wider social issues that are causing many teens to have early sexual encounters.

What the study doesn’t describe is the equally important issue of what teens thought of their early experiences. Did they enjoy or regret them? Did they use contraception (particularly condoms)? I suspect, given the multiple problems already described that for many there wasn’t much enjoyment and safer sex wasn’t part of the equation. Existing evidence suggests where young people have sex early they often regret it, don’t enjoy it that much and can be under a lot of peer pressure to have sex to seem grown up or fit in.

Other studies have also claimed that if you have early teen sexual behaviour it’s a given that you’ll end up on the scrapheap of life and probably a career criminal or druggie to boot.

But the second piece of research on teen behaviour is begging to differ. A study by clinical psychologists from the University of Virginia looked at 534 same sex twins and discovered rather than becoming involved in alcohol or drug abuse or antisocial behaviour following an early sexual debut, those who had sex young reported better relationships in late adolescence.

The researchers want to investigate this finding further but hypothesise that teens who have sex young have time to learn about and develop close personal relationships that form a positive model for the future.

Both of these studies give us something more to think about in relation to teen sexual behaviour. It’s heartening to hear something positive about teenagers and sex given that most research (and media coverage) paints a pretty bleak picture. However, we do need to be careful about how we approach this issue since there is a lot of difference in the way sex and relationships are approached by the confident, assertive teen who’s had good sex education and is full of aspirations and the teen who lacks parental support, education and empowerment.

Early sexual behaviour may not lead to delinquency, but there can still be problems of STIs, unwanted pregnancy or sexual abuse if we don’t provide young people with comprehensive sex education. Both of these studies are a testament to the importance of that.

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