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Research Summaries

All Research Summaries

Self Esteem as a Predictor of Initiation of Coitus in Early Adolescents

Original publication authored by:
Jennifer M. Spencer, PhD, Gregory D. Zimet, PhD, Matthew C. Aalsma, PhD, and Donald P. Orr, MD

This summary includes the following sections:


Little research has been conducted on the relationship between self-esteem and the initiation of sexual intercourse in early adolescents. And the studies that do focus on the relationship between self-esteem and sexual initiation in younger adolescents rely on cross-sectional designs, making interpretation of the findings more difficult.

This longitudinal study conducted by Spencer et al. was designed to investigate if gender differences in self-esteem of early adolescents can serve as predictors of subsequent initiation of sexual intercourse. The researchers hypothesized that lower self-esteem in girls — and higher self-esteem in boys — predict subsequent initiation of sexual intercourse.



Five-hundred twenty-one (521) seventh grade students from two junior high schools completed a confidential questionnaire (Time #1). The students lived in local working class neighborhoods or were bussed in from urban areas.

The questionnaires contained the following items:

  • Questions on standard socio-demographic information;
  • Ten questions from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) which is psychometrically sound with adequate internal consistency and good test reliability;
  • Questions about pubertal maturation as measured by the timing of pubertal events (e.g., pubic hair growth); and
  • One question about whether the youth had "had sexual intercourse/gone all the way."

In order to create a sample of students who had not yet initiated sexual intercourse, the students who did not answer question #46 (about coitus), or answered "yes" to question #185 (about coitus), were eliminated from the sample. The remaining sample of seventh grade self-reported virgin students at Time #1 totaled 290.

Twenty-two (22) months later (Time #2) when the 290 students were in ninth grade, they were asked to complete the questionnaire again. A total of 188 students completed the questionnaire at Time #2, almost two years after completing it at Time #1.



In regard to the sample of 188 virgin students:

  • Forty-three percent (43%) were boys, and 57% were girls.
  • Eighty-four percent (84%) were white, and 16% were black.
  • Ages ranged from 12 to 14 with a mean of 12.5 at Time #1 and 14 to 16 with a mean of 14.3 at Time #2.
  • Twenty-nine (29) were considered early pubertal maturers (15.4%), 125 (66.5%) were average, and 34 (18.1%) were late pubertal maturers.
  • RSES scores ranged from 12 to 40 with higher scores indicating higher self-esteem. At Time #1, mean scores for gender were nearly identical at 30.41 for girls and 30.12 for boys. Mean scores at Time #2 were not significantly different from mean scores at Time #1.
  • All students were virgins at Time #1 and by Time #2, 40% of boys and 31% of girls reported initiation of sexual intercourse.
  • Boys with high self-esteem at Time #1 were 2.4 times more likely to initiate intercourse than boys with low self-esteem. Conversely, girls with high self-esteem were 3 times more likely to remain virgins than those girls with low self-esteem.
  • Pubertal status did not significantly vary by gender or coital status.



Given the findings of this longitudinal study, it appears that preexisting levels of self-esteem in early adolescents are significant in their initiation of sexual intercourse. Specifically, girls with low self-esteem scores were three times more likely to subsequently initiate sexual intercourse. Conversely, boys with high self-esteem scores were 2.4 times more likely to subsequently initiate intercourse.

The discrepancy on how self-esteem affects boys and girls may reflect the societally-based double standard for sexual activity, in which early sexual intercourse for boys is not as unacceptable as it is for girls. The authors propose that high self-esteem in girls seems to serve as a protective factor against sexual involvement. Girls with lower self-esteem may begin having sex to feel better about themselves, to experience intimacy, to feel more mature, or to rebel against societal norms about early sexual activity.

The authors speculate that boys with high self-esteem are more confident and may be more likely to find willing sexual partners than boys with low self-esteem.

Since early sexual involvement is associated with negative outcomes in adolescents, prevention programs aimed at delaying the initiation of sexual intercourse are important. Programs that can increase girls' self-esteem may prove to be effective in delaying their initiation of sexual intercourse.

Spencer, J., Zimet, G., Aalsma, M., & Orr, D. Self-esteem as a predictor of initiation of coitus in early adolescents. Pediatrics. Vol. 109, 4, April 2002, 581-584.