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Research Summaries

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Age Differences Between Sexual Partners in the United States

Original article by: Darroch, J., Landry, D., and Oslak, S.

There has been a long-standing concern about young women involved in relationships with men who are substantially older. Differences in maturity, life experience, social status, and other factors enhance the potential for sexual abuse and exploitation. Researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) recently explored this issue. Specifically, their study sought to understand the impact of age differences on pregnancy and use of contraception. It also examined factors that contribute to a young woman's involvement with an older male.

The primary data used for the study were taken from Cycle 5 of the National Survey of Family Growth, a national survey of women ages 15 to 44. The data were collected in 1995. Partner age was divided into four categories: 3 or more years younger, within 2 years of the same age, 3-5 years older, and 6 or more years older.

The study results showed that among all sexually active women ages 15-44, about one-half had a partner who was within 2 years of their age. Teens and young women in their early twenties were more likely than older women to have a partner within 2 years of their age. For example, 64% of teens ages 15-17 and 59% of young women ages 20 to 24 reported having a partner within 2 years of their age, whereas slightly less than half (48-49%) of women ages 30 or older reported having partners within 2 years of their age.

Focusing on women with older partners, the data showed that 29% of teens ages 15-17 had partners who were 3-5 years older, and 7% had a partner who was 6 or more years older. Women ages 20 and over were more likely to have a partner who is 6 or more years older than were teens (16-22% vs. 7%).

Age of partner was associated with higher rates of pregnancy and birth. Approximately half of all pregnancies to adolescents under age 18 were fathered by males 3 or more years older. (In about 30% of the pregnancies, the male was 3-5 years older, and in the other 20%, the male was 6 or more years older.) Having an older partner also was associated with lower rates of contraceptive use, abortion, and unintended pregnancy. Specifically, teens with a partner 6 or more years older were:

  • more likely to become pregnant and give birth;

  • less likely to report using contraception at last intercourse;

  • less likely to choose an abortion;

  • less likely to report that the pregnancy was unintended.

The researchers at AGI also examined who was more likely to have an older partner. They found that women with older partners were more likely to have reported that they had been forced to have sex at some time in their lives and that they had first intercourse in more casual relationships rather than long-term relationships (e.g., going steady or engaged). The researchers also found that Hispanic women and women who dropped out of school were more likely to have older partners, but these factors were not significant, probably due to the relatively small sample size.

Although the proportion of teens ages 15-17 who have much older partners is relatively small, these women are of concern due to their higher pregnancy rates and lower rates of contraceptive use.

Darroch, J., Landry, D., Oslak, S. (1999). Age differences between sexual partners in the United States. Family Planning Perspectives, 31(4), 160-167.