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Older Boyfriends and Girlfriends Increase Risk of Sexual Initiation in Young Adolescents

Original article authored by:
Barbara Vanoss Marin, PhD, Karin K. Coyle, PhD, Cynthia A. Gomez, PhD, Scott C. Carvajal, PhD, and Douglas B. Kirby, PhD

This summary includes the following sections:

Introduction

Early sexual initiation is associated with a variety of negative sexual health outcomes including:

  1. higher number of lifetime sexual partners;
  2. less regular condom use;
  3. more sexually transmitted diseases (STDs);
  4. more human immunodeficiency virus (HIV);
  5. more teen pregnancy; and
  6. more abuse.

Many studies exploring factors leading to early sexual activity have ignored the possibility that sexual initiation could be coerced rather than voluntary.

Older boyfriends have not been studied as a predictor of early sexual initiation but have been associated with a disproportionately high number of adolescent pregnancies. Older partners (boyfriends/girlfriends) might have coercive sexual power over younger adolescents because they:

  • bring more resources, maturity and status to the relationship,
  • have a social and developmental advantage over the younger adolescent, and
  • are more likely to be sexually experienced.

This unequal relationship may be a predictor of early sexual initiation.

As stated by the authors, the purposes of this study were to:

  1. describe the frequency of relationships with older boyfriends/girlfriends in a large sample of urban, ethnically diverse preadolescents.
  2. describe the association between demographics, unwanted sexual advances, and peer norms on the one hand, and age difference with boyfriend/girlfriend on the other.
  3. determine whether relationships with an older boyfriend/girlfriend are associated with early sexual onset and how much these relationships contribute to sexual initiation, beyond demographics, peer norms, and unwanted sexual advances; and
  4. identify gender differences in the impact of such relationships.

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Methods

Male and female students (10 to 13 years old) from 19 ethnically diverse middle schools in Northern California were surveyed. Two-thousand, eight-hundred and twenty-nine (2,829) completed the survey, which represented a 68% response rate. The survey instrument measured:

  • demographics,
  • age of oldest boyfriend or girlfriend,
  • unwanted sexual advances,
  • peer norms, and
  • sexual behavior.

Students were categorized as having either an older boyfriend/girlfriend (two or more years older), having a same-age boyfriend/girlfriend (one or less years older), or having no boyfriend/girlfriend. These categories were compared on demographic and psychosocial variables using analysis of variance. Multivariate logistic regressions were completed separately for boys and girls to predict sexual behavior from demographics, psychosocial variables, and age categories of boyfriend/girlfriend.

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Results

Boyfriend/Girlfriend Status and Demographics

  • Over half the respondents (56.4%) had never had a boyfriend/girlfriend. About a third (35.1%) reported that their oldest boyfriend/girlfriend was one or less than two years older than them (same age) and 8.5% reported having a partner two or more years older than them (older boyfriend/girlfriend).
  • Youth with a same-age or older boyfriend/girlfriend were significantly older and had poorer grades in school than those who had not had a boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • Youth with older boyfriend/girlfriends had the lowest acculturation and were most likely to be Hispanic. They also had the lowest educational aspirations and reported lower mother's education than the other two groups.

Peer Norms and Unwanted Sexual Advances

  • Peer norms and unwanted sexual advances were strongly related to age of boyfriend/girlfriend categories.
  • The three boyfriend/girlfriend categories each differed significantly in regards to both "pro-sex" peer norms and unwanted sexual advances. Those without boyfriends/girlfriends experienced the least, while those with same-age boyfriends/girlfriends fell in the middle, and those with older boyfriends/girlfriends experienced the most "pro-sex" norms and unwanted sexual advances.

Sexual Activity

  • Overall, 4% of the study sample reported having had sex (5% of boys and 3% of girls).
  • Students with a boyfriend or girlfriend were more likely to report having had sex than were students without a boyfriend/girlfriend. The greater the age difference with the oldest boyfriend/girlfriend, the more likely youth were to report having had sex during or before sixth grade.

Predicting Sexual Onset

  • For boys, students who reported ever having a girlfriend were more likely to have had sex than those with no girlfriend. Additionally, "pro-sex" peer norms and unwanted sexual advances were strongly associated with having had sex. More acculturated boys were less likely to report having sex.
  • For girls, students who reported ever having a boyfriend were more likely to have had sex than those with no boyfriend. Additionally, "pro-sex" peer norms and unwanted sexual advances were strongly associated with having had sex. Girls with better grades in school were less likely to have had sex.
  • The greater the age difference of the oldest boyfriend/girlfriend, the more likely students were to report having initiated sexual intercourse during sixth grade. For example, in the multivariate analyses for boys, students who reported having had a same-age girlfriend were about three times more likely to have had sex, whereas those who reported having had an older girlfriend were nearly five times more likely to have had sex.

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Discussion

  • Having a boyfriend or girlfriend, especially if they are older, plays a role in accelerating sexual activity in 12-14 year olds. Older boyfriends/girlfriends are likely to expose younger youth to more "pro-sex" social norms and unwanted sexual advances — which are both associated with initiation of sex.
  • These findings strongly suggest that for preadolescents, sexual activity may occur in situations of pressure or power differential between partners.
  • Interventions serving young adolescents should educate about the special risks related to having older boyfriends/girlfriends.

Vanoss Marin, B., Coyle, K.K., Gomez, C.A., Carvajal, S.C., & Kirby, D.B. (2000). Older Boyfriends and Girlfriends Increase Risk of Sexual Initiation in Young Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27, 409-418.

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