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Teens and Older Partners

by Michael Males, Ph.D.
May-June 2004

This paper includes the following sections:

Introduction

Government and non-government entities have characterized "teenage pregnancy" and "teenage motherhood" as major social problems in the United States. The 400,000 to 500,000 young women under age 20 who become mothers each year in the U.S. have often been "blamed" for causing immense social costs, including higher public welfare costs and negative outcomes for their children (Maynard 1997; National Campaign 1997). However, claims that children of teenage mothers suffer or generate higher social costs than to children of older mothers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds have been disputed in recent reports (Cohen et al 2002; Hotz 1997, 2000).

Preventing teenage pregnancy is defined as a goal of several government (e.g., Federal Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs — OAPP) and non-government organizations (e.g., The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy — NCPTP). However, a review of the data presented by the NCPTP (1997) shows that adult males age 20 and older, not teenage males, father the large majority of births to mothers under age 20 (an estimated 280,000 of the 430,000 births in 2002). However, this important fact generates only sporadic attention from the major organizations involved with preventing teen pregnancy. In addition, the fact that older partners are also implicated in most other negative sexual outcomes, such as abortions and sexually transmitted infections (STIs, including HIV), among teens has received virtually no discussion.

Many of the major organizations and foundations concerned with teenage pregnancy (i.e., Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998) do not mention this issue at all, while others (Planned Parenthood 2004; Alan Guttmacher Institute 1999; National Center for Policy Analysis 2001) cite it only in passing, with little comment on its implications. Even less discussion surrounds the fact that a surprisingly large proportion of births fathered by teenage males (about 40,000 annually) involve partners over age 20. Finally, for the youngest mothers of most concern to policy makers, those under age 15, about six times more babies are fathered by men over age 20 than by peer boys (National Center for Health Statistics 1908-2003). After a brief flurry of research activity and policy proposals in the mid- and late-1990s, interest in the issue of older partners in teenage pregnancy and childbearing has waned considerably.

After a brief flurry of research activity and policy proposals in the mid- and late-1990s, interest in the issue of older partners in teenage pregnancy and childbearing has waned considerably.

Consider the following:

  • "Teenage girls with older partners are more likely to become pregnant than those with partners closer in age," Planned Parenthood (2004) reported. Further, girls who get pregnant are more likely to have the baby rather than get an abortion if their partners are older (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994).
  • A recent study found that 6.7 percent of women aged 15-17 have partners six or more years older. The pregnancy rate for this group is 3.7 times as high as the rate for those whose partners are no more than two years older (Planned Parenthood 2004; Darroch et al., 1999).
  • Teens who date older partners had a lower likelihood of consistent contraceptive use. For each year a partner is older than the respondent, the likelihood of always using contraception decreases by 11 percent. (In this study, on average, first sexual partners were one year older than the respondent.) Child Trends (2004).

The predominance of older, adult partners may be an uncomfortable topic to raise and a difficult one to address by policies or education programs. However, it should not be dismissed as an unimportant factor in what we call �teenage� sexuality and childbearing. In fact, it may be a crucial variable. This edition of ReCAPP will attempt to explore this issue more fully as well as offer some practical suggestions for addressing it.

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"Teenage" Pregnancy and Childbearing: An Accurate Description?

"Teenage childbearing" is defined as a birth to a mother under age 20 regardless of the age of the father, and �teenage pregnancy� likewise is defined by the age of the female only. In the popular imagination, and often in official and program portrayals as well, it is conceptualized as a pregnancy and/or childbirth caused by "teenage boys and girls" of high school or younger age (Males & Chew 1996; Landry & Forrest 1995).

Regardless of the popular depiction of "teenage" pregnancy as an event involving two teenagers, the best statistics indicate that around two-thirds of the male partners of teenage females and one-fifth of the female partners of teenage males are older than age 20. No matter what age limit is cited as defining "teenage pregnancy" and childbearing ("teenagers" under age 20; "adolescents" under age 18; or females under the "age of consent," — 16 in most states), the large majority of male sexual partners will be older than that age limit.

The ages of male partners in abortion outcomes are not as easy to measure; the scant information available suggests teenage women are somewhat more likely to keep the baby when their partners are older, meaning that pregnancies ending in abortion are likely to involve younger men than pregnancies ending in childbearing (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994).

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Historical Context

Historically, reproduction by teenage females with older (often much older) males has been a normative pattern. The first national birth registry statistics (1921) covering more than half the nation's population reported that 91% of fathers of babies born to mothers ages 15-19, and 70% of those to mothers ages 10-14, were over age 20. Age gaps between partners were quite large at this time, averaging seven years. In fact, one-third of the fathers of babies of mothers ages 15-19, and 29% of babies born to mothers under age 15, were age 25 or older.

The proportion of births to teen mothers fathered by men over age 20 fell slowly, to 88% in 1940, 85% in the 1950s, and a low of 66% in the early 1970s. Today, about half of the births to teen mothers involve men ages 20-24, and an additional one-sixth are over age 25. Despite its long history and prominence in vital statistics reports, the fact that adult men father the large majority of babies born to teenage mothers came as a surprise to researchers in the 1990s who had assumed the fathers were predominately teenage males (Landry & Forrest 1995).

Today, about half of the births to teen mothers involve men ages 20-24, and an additional one-sixth are over age 25.

In terms of recent trends, California (the state of California will be used as an example throughout this paper) statistics indicate the number of teenage births involving married couples and ones involving two teenage partners declined the most rapidly over the last 12 years. Married teens are more likely to have reduced their fertility during the decade if their spouses also were teens. For unmarried couples, there was a lesser decline in births, and the age of the partner did not seem to affect the trend much. The three tables below summarize these data.

Table 1: Mother Under Age 20, Father Under Age 20

Relationship
CA Total
Births 1990
CA Total
Births 2002
Change %
Married
5,487
2,072
-62%
Unwed
18,272
14,066
-23%

Table 2: Mother Under Age 20, Father Over Age 20

Relationship
CA Total
Births 1990
CA Total
Births 2002
Change %
Married
18,596
10,869
-42%
Unwed
28,536
26,770
-6%

Table 3: Mother Over Age 20, Father Under Age 20

Relationship
CA Total
Births 1990
CA Total
Births 2002
Change %
Married
2,157
1,075
-50%
Unwed
4,288
3,353
-22%

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Partner Age Gaps

Although partner age gaps were often very large in the past, great confusion surrounds the issue as to how big a partner age gap, and how young a younger partner, is acceptable today. The Alan Guttmacher Institute's research summary finds that most teenagers appear to have partners close in age:

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of sexually active 15-17-year-old women have partners who are within two years of their age; 29% have sexual partners who are 3-5 years older, and 7% have partners who are six or more years older. Most sexually active young men [15-17 years old] have female partners close to their age: 76% of the partners of 19-year-old men are either 17 (33%) or 18 (43%); 13% are 16, and 11% are aged 13-15. (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1999; see also Darroch et al., 1999; Sonenstein et al., 1997).

That two-thirds of sexually active 15-17 year-old women have partners within two years of their age, while 60% of the births to mothers this age are fathered by men three or more years older, suggests that some factor reduces fertility among teens with younger partners. A similar, though lesser, pattern appears for teenage males (see Table 3), while sexually active 19 year-old men virtually all report same-age or younger partners — 30% of the births fathered by 19 year-old men are by mothers ages 20 and older.

Some observers, such as the Urban Institute (UI), declare that "the pattern of fathers being slightly older than mothers fits squarely within societal norms" (Lindberg et al., 1997, p. 61). Based on the average maximum age gap between adult and teenage sex partners specified in major states' felony statutory rape laws, "slightly" turns out to be "up to five years older." According to UI's standard then, a 20 year-old impregnating a 15 year-old, would be seen as socially acceptable. However, UI argues that teenage women should be discouraged from deciding to "prematurely engage in childbearing and other adult behaviors" (Lindberg et al., 1997, p. 65), which seems to suggest a commonly held view — it is acceptable for older males to have sexual relations and babies with younger females, but it is not acceptable for younger females to have sex or to become mothers.

Others argue for stricter standards. State statutory rape laws typically apply misdemeanor penalties when one partner is under age 18 and the other is three or more years older, and felony penalties for sexual relations between persons under age 16 and partners five or more years older. However, prosecution of statutory rape cases is rare and difficult, and a brief effort at enforcement in the mid-1990s in states such as California produced little result (see Donovan, 1997).

State statutory rape laws typically apply misdemeanor penalties when one partner is under age 18 and the other is three or more years older, and felony penalties for sexual relations between persons under age 16 and partners five or more years older.

The characteristics of adult men and the teenage women they date are clearly not ideal. Compared to teenage fathers, adult fathers with teen partners were significantly more likely to have a history of school failure, to smoke, to have been arrested, to react happily to the pregnancy, and to be employed at a higher wage. Teenage women who chose older male partners were significantly more likely to report that the pregnancy was planned, their parents reacted happily to the news, they were casually involved with the father at the time of conception, they used alcohol and drugs frequently, they had behavior problems at school, and they dropped out of school both before and after the conception (Lamb et al 1986). However, after learning of their pregnancies, teenage mothers with troubled histories tended to adopt healthier behaviors, including substantially reduced drug, tobacco and alcohol use and suicidal thoughts, and improved self-esteem and interest in returning to school (Stiffman et al., 1990; Bayatpour et al., 1992).

A number of studies have suggested greater levels of difficulty, including school failure and poverty, among teen mothers and their male partners of both teen and adult age. An interesting pioneering study of 275 couples found differences not just between older versus younger fathers of the babies born to teenage mothers, but between teenage mothers who pick older versus younger reproductive partners — and the results were quite mixed (Lamb et al., 1986).

As for infant health, younger teen mothers' babies weigh less at birth than those of older mothers (birth weight is the best overall indicator of infant health). However, the age of the mother is of much less significance than her socioeconomic status. For example, white mothers ages 10-14 have babies with higher average birth weight, and white mothers ages 15-19 have babies with substantially higher birth weight, than black adult mothers at every age level (Center for Health Statistics 2003), reflecting the fact that even poorer young white mothers are less likely to be impoverished than black adult mothers. Further, more recent studies of teenage mothers and more appropriate control groups have questioned whether children of teenage mothers generate higher long-term social costs, perform worse in school, or suffer impaired development or health compared to adult mothers of similar background and socioeconomic status (Cohen et al 2002; Hotz et al., 1997, 2000).

The age of the mother is of much less significance than her socioeconomic status.

Perhaps as a result of the complexities related to older partners dating teens, little attention has been given to the issue and how it is related to what we call "teenage" sex, pregnancy, STI, and childbearing today. The lack of attention given the issue may be due to the challenges it presents to traditional concepts of "teenage pregnancy."

Addressing the issue also raises difficult policy and prevention questions that most groups in the debate don't want to consider within the political parameters in which discussion is currently framed. If what we call "teenage sex" and its outcomes are not behaviors distinct to teenagers, but rather are integrated with adult sexuality, traditional educational approaches, programs, and policy sanctions aimed at teenagers would be questionable, even discriminatory. For example, no group depicts the high rates of pregnancy among American teenage girls as the result of "American adults impregnating and fathering babies with teenagers at far higher rates than adults in other Western nations," though this is as relevant as the behaviors of young women.

Finally, an issue that is rarely discussed is the wide individual variation in maturity and readiness for sexual activity and marriage. Recent studies comparing adults and adolescents along a wide variety of indices of cognitive ability, including understanding of facts, ability to foresee the consequences of future behaviors, impulsiveness, delusions of invulnerability, trust in the intentions of others, and similar measures, typically find few differences between teens age 14-15, and virtually no difference between teens age 16 and older, and adults (Grisso et al 2003; Offer & Schonert-Reichl 1992).

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Who are the Fathers?

Few states have reasonably complete tabulations of the age of the father in births to teenage mothers. California's Center for Health Statistics (1960-2003) reports fathers' ages in 85% of the state's 53,908 births among teenage mothers ages 12 to 19 in 2002. Fathers' ages range from 13 to 62 years and average 21.5 years; mothers average 18.3 years (unknowns are apportioned as described below).

The state also reports mothers' ages for 22,540 births fathered by teenage males ages 13 to 19. Mothers range in age from 12 to 46 years and average 18.8 years.

In the tables below, the numbers of fathers of unknown age are apportioned in the same manner as fathers of known age to each year of mother's age by marital status and race. For example, if 14 year-old boys comprise 6% of the fathers of known age in births by unwed 14 year-old white mothers, they are assumed to be 6% of the fathers of unknown age in births by unwed 14 year-old white mothers. Because younger mothers report higher percentages of births by fathers of unknown age, the tables below show somewhat higher percentages of younger fathers than those reporting only fathers of known age. That is, while teenage males under age 20 comprise 34.5% of the 41,775 births to teenage mothers in which fathers' ages are known in 2002, this method apportions to teenage males 43.2% of the 9,282 births in which the father's age is listed as unknown.

Table 4: Father's Age by Age of Mother, California, 2002

Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
10-14
49
40
3
91
15-17
306
3,405
1,066
4,777
18-19
199
5,531
6,944
12,673
20-24
156
6,377
18,672
25,206
25-29
8
1,106
5,051
6,164
30-34
3
183
1,284
1,469
35-39
1
43
428
473
40-62
0
17
169
186
TOTAL
722*
16,701*
33,616*
51,039*

*Totals in this and subsequent tables may not add up exactly due to rounding.
Source: California Center for Health Statistics, 2002

Of 51,000 births among teenage mothers, 17,500 were fathered by teen males, 25,200 by men age 20-24, and 8,300 by men over age 25. Partner age gaps were considerably greater for younger mothers. For example, roughly the same number of births to girls under age 15 were fathered by men over age 25, as by peer boys under age 15.

In nearly half the births (49%) to mothers ages 15-17, the father is 20 or older; fewer than one in five of these births involve fathers under age 18. For the youngest mothers, under age 15, there are few births, but more than half of fathers are over 18 and more than one-fourth are 20 and older.

Socioeconomic status has a strong effect on birth rates but inconsistent effects on the age of fathers in teen births. California's poorest teens are 20 times more likely to become mothers before age 20. Fathers of births by teens in the state's poorer counties tend to be younger and less likely to be married than for teens in richer counties. For example, impoverished San Joaquin County and wealthy San Mateo County have about the same number of teens (20,000). However, 34% of fathers in the 1,399 births involving at least one teenage parent in San Joaquin are under age 20, compared to 27% of the 212 such births in San Mateo. Further, 21% of the teens giving birth in San Joaquin are married, compared to 36% in San Mateo.

California births to mothers under age 20 in 2002, expressed as rates per 1,000 females ages 15-19 by race, are partitioned below by age of father:

Table 5: Birth Rate per 1,000 Females Age 15-19,
Partitioned by Age of Father, California, 2002

Father Age
Total
Latina
White
Black
Asian
Native
Other
<18
3.9
6.2
1.5
7.6
1.1
4.6
3.3
18-19
10.1
15.8
4.6
17.4
3.5
14.1
6.6
20-24
20.0
32.6
9.5
26.6
6.6
20.0
12.6
25+
6.6
11.2
2.9
7.2
2.2
7.3
2.7
TOTAL
40.5
65.8
18.5
58.9
13.4
46.0
25.2

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

The influence of poverty can be seen in California's birth rates for teenage mothers in 2002, but the effects are complicated, and poverty is not the only determining factor. Latina teens are 3.6 times more likely to become mothers than white teens overall, and 4.1 times more likely for births involving fathers under age 18. Ethnic and immigrant patterns also appear to influence the ages of fathers in teen births. For example, African-American fathers of babies born to teenage girls appear somewhat younger, while Asian and Native fathers are more likely to be over age 25 than for other races.

Table 6: Latina Teen Births by Partner Age, California, 2002

LATINO
Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
Percent
10-14
33
30
1
64
0.2%
15-17
216
2,337
724
3,277
9.3%
18-19
156
3,928
4,381
8,465
24.0%
20-24
126
4,895
12,406
17,427
49.5%
25-29
6
891
3,696
4,593
13.0%
30-34
3
140
853
995
2.8%
35-39
1
31
260
292
0.8%
40-53
0
8
86
94
0.3%
TOTAL
541
12,261
22,405
35,207

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Table 7: White (not Latina) Teen Births by Partner Age, California, 2002

WHITE
Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
Percent
10-14
8
5
1
15
0.2%
15-17
32
482
194
708
8.1%
18-19
10
833
1,354
2,198
25.1%
20-24
8
796
3,695
4,500
51.3%
25-29
0
97
809
906
10.3%
30-34
0
23
254
277
3.2%
35-39
0
10
102
112
1.3%
40-62
0
7
52
58
0.7%
TOTAL
58
2,254
6,461
8,773

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Table 8: Black (not Latina) Teen Births by Partner Age, California, 2002

BLACK
Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
Percent
10-14
6
2
0
8
0.2%
15-17
44
414
85
543
12.7%
18-19
23
472
770
1,265
29.6%
20-24
20
399
1,514
1,933
45.2%
25-29
0
58
290
348
8.1%
30-34
0
7
107
113
2.7%
35-39
0
1
38
39
0.9%
40-52
0
0
26
26
0.6%
TOTAL
93
1,352
2,830
4,275

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Table 9: Asian/Pacific Islander (not Latina) Teen Births by Partner Age, California, 2002

ASIAN
Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
Percent
10-14
2
3
0
5
0.2%
15-17
10
112
49
171
8.1%
18-19
4
216
337
557
26.2%
20-24
3
223
810
1,036
48.9%
25-29
2
52
205
258
12.2%
30-34
0
14
52
66
3.1%
35-39
0
1
21
22
1.0%
40-45
0
1
4
6
0.3%
TOTAL
20
622
1,479
2,121

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Table 10: Native Teen Births by Partner Age, California, 2002

NATIVE
Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
Percent
10-14
0
0
0
0
0%
15-17
1
26
6
33
10.1%
18-19
1
37
63
101
30.6%
20-24
0
26
118
144
43.4%
25-29
0
2
32
35
10.5%
30-34
0
0
11
11
3.2%
35-39
0
0
6
6
1.8%
40-53
0
0
1
1
0.4%
TOTAL
2
92
237
331

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Table 11: Other/Unknown Race Teen Births by Partner Age, California, 2002

OTHER/UNKNOWN
Father Age
Mother's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
Percent
10-14
0
0
0
0
0%
15-17
4
33
7
44
13.2%
18-19
5
44
39
87
26.2%
20-24
0
38
128
166
50.1%
25-29
0
6
19
25
7.4%
30-34
0
0
7
7
2.1%
35-39
0
0
2
2
0.7%
40-47
0
0
1
1
0.3%
TOTAL
8
120
204
332

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Teens in poorer, recent immigrant populations have considerably older partners.

In particular, teens in poorer, recent immigrant populations have considerably older partners. Of the 410 births by Hmong Asian women under age 20 in 2002, 74% were fathered by men older than 20, including 22% by men older than 25. Similarly, 71% of the 2,111 births by teens of Central American and Caribbean origin were fathered by men over age 20. This data appears to reflect patterns of recent immigrants from Third World countries, including arranged marriages.

Teen Fathers and Older Partners

Of approximately 22,000 births fathered by California teenage males in 2002, approximately 17,500 involved teen females, and nearly 4,500 — one fifth — involved mothers over age 20. Four-fifths of these were fathers ages 18-19 with mothers ages 20-24. Abortion measures and other outcomes do not appear to be available for younger-male/older-female liaisons.

Table 12: Adult Mother's Age by Age of Teen Father,
California, 2002

Mother Age
Father's Age
10-14
15-17
18-19
Total
20-24
5
260
3,589
3,854
25-29
0
20
433
453
30-34
0
2
97
99
35-39
0
0
19
19
40-46
0
0
3
3
TOTAL
5
282
4,141
4,428

Source: California Center for Health Statistics, 2002

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Next: Teens and Older Partners, Part 2: Why Do Teens Date Older Partners?