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Teens and Older Partners Part 2

Why Do Teens Date Older Partners?

In sum, more than 55,000 births in California in 2002 involved at least one teenage parent. For 38,000 of these (68%), the other parent was over age 20; in 9,000 (16%), the other parent was over age 25.

These patterns raise two questions regarding basic definitions. First, if most of the partners in what we call "teenage" childbearing are over age 20, why do we refer to the phenomenon by the younger age of the mother rather than the adult age of the father? Second, if a birth by a teenage female is considered to constitute the social problem of "teenage," pregnancy and childbearing regardless of the age of the father, why isn't a birth fathered by a teenage male also considered to be part of this "problem" regardless of the age of the mother?

Why do teenage girls involved with older men get pregnant more frequently? The appeal of older women to younger men is the subject of considerable anecdotal speculation, but has not been systematically studied, primarily because the extent of these relationships has not been acknowledged. Many of the same reasons older men are appealing to younger women may apply in reverse.

Although studies of adult-teen relationships are sparse, there has been some anecdotal effort to understand them. The National Center for Policy Analysis (2001) suggests four main reasons:

  • Older men may expect the woman to take responsibility for contraception.
  • Teenage women are not as likely to use birth control pills as women a few years older.
  • Teens may want to become "adults" more quickly to escape an unhappy or deprived home environment.
  • An older man may be better able to care for a family than a teenager.

Anecdotal responses from discussion groups, program reports, and media reports indicate a variety of reasons for choosing older partners.

First, and often overlooked, is individual chemistry, which does not observe rigid age boundaries. Many observers look for practical factors than ignore the fact that adult-teen, like adult-adult and teen-teen, relationships may be genuine, although assumptions of unhealthy factors may apply for very young teens involved with much-older partners (Males 1999, 1996; Luker 1996).

Second, a practical factor includes the greater financial and physical independence of older teen men and adult men in their 20s. Both studies and personal stories indicate that compared to school-age boys, older men tend to have more money, a car, a place to live, access to adult privileges, no responsibility to parents or family rules, and other lifestyle attributes younger girls may find appealing.

Third, older men, on average, may be seen by younger women as more mature and experienced with life and with women, having had prior relationships and lived outside their parents' homes. These features in particular can exert strong appeal on younger women who are impoverished, from abusive families, and/or want or need to get out of their own depressed situation and homes (National Center for Policy Analysis 2001; Boyer & Fine 1992; Musick 1993; Luker 1996; Montfort & Brick 1999).

Older men also carry liabilities that can be closely related to what seem to be their attributes. Greater independence means greater mobility, which makes it easier for older partners to abandon girlfriends. Greater experience with life increases the odds that older men will have problems with substance abuse, emotional disturbances, criminal behavior, abusiveness, STI and HIV infection, and unresolved past relationships (including ongoing ones). In particular, the HIV infection rate is nine times higher, and gonorrhea and syphilis rates are three times higher, among teen girls than among teen boys, indicating infection of younger women by older male partners (Centers for Disease Control 1990-2002; Sexually Transmitted Disease Control Branch 2002). Older male infection of younger females may be even more pronounced if, as several studies indicate, HIV-positive teenage males also tend to have had adult male partners (Wendell et al 1993; Conway et al 1993).

The HIV infection rate is nine times higher, and gonorrhea and syphilis rates are three times higher, among teen girls than among teen boys, indicating infection of younger women by older male partners.

A substantial percentage of younger teens who have had sex appear to have been forced. "Some 74% of women who had intercourse before age 14 and 60% of those who had sex before age 15 report having had sex involuntarily," as do 40% of those who had sex by 15, and 25% by 16 also reported, the Guttmacher Institute said. "Sex among young adolescents is often involuntary; it frequently involves a man who is substantially older than the woman, which may make it hard for the young woman to resist his approaches and even more difficult for her to insist that contraceptives be used to prevent STDs and pregnancy" (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994, pp. 28, 73-74).

Sometimes it is difficult to characterize older male partners of teenage women as liabilities or assets. According to a 1998 study of Latino men in Los Angeles, Latino males, particularly older ones, who impregnate teenage females tend to have more traditional ideas about gender roles, view their childhoods negatively, and had more abusive, alcoholic parents. However, the "types of men" who impregnate teens vary widely in motivation, from those seeking conquest and validation of masculinity to those who care for their partners and make responsible husbands, boyfriends, and fathers (Goodyear & Newcomb, in California Wellness Foundation 2000).

Trends in the economic well-being of young adults in the 18-29 range over the last 30 years such as declining real incomes, greater tendency to live in parents' homes, greater enrollment in higher education, greater likelihood of criminal records and imprisonment, and greater unemployability, may have worked to reduce the appeal of older partners and contributed to declining birth rates in the 1990s, particularly African Americans. The declining economic fortunes of teenage males may also reduce their desirability as reproductive partners for teenage women.

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Consequences of Teens Dating Older Partners

A few studies indicate that teenage girls who date older men are more likely to get pregnant, more likely to keep the baby, and more likely to marry their partners than those who date teen boys (see Guttmacher, 1994, 1997; and review by California Wellness Foundation 2000). These tendencies are indicated by the older age of married teens. The average age of a California teen wife giving birth is 18.2, and her husband, 22.7. In fact, husbands average over 21 years old at time of birth for every age of teen wife (the youngest married teen giving birth in California in 2002 was 14). This compares to the average ages of 17.8 years for unwed teen mothers and 21.1 years for their partners at time of birth. Married teens also have far greater fertility (170 per 1,000 married teen women — 10 times higher than for unwed teens).

Married teens also have far greater fertility (170 per 1,000 married teen women — 10 times higher than for unwed teens).

For teen fathers, the average age of female reproductive partners is younger and closer to the age of the father. Fathers under age 16 tend to have somewhat older partners, though these involved only 324 California births in 2002.

Table 13: Average Age of Fathers in Births by Teen Mothers, by Marital Status, California, 2002

Age of Teen Mother
Average Father's Age, Mother <20
All
Wed
Unwed
12
19.7*
-
19.7*
13
17.2
-
17.2
14
18.3
21.8
18.0
15
18.9
21.1
18.6
16
19.6
21.2
19.3
17
20.5
21.9
20.2
18
21.6
22.5
21.3
19
22.7
23.2
22.5
Average All Ages
21.6
22.7
21.1

*Fewer than 15 cases
Source: California Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Table 14: Average Age of Mothers in Births Fathered by Teens, by Marital Status, California, 2002

Age of Teen Father
Average Mother's Age, Father <20
All
Wed
Unwed
12
-
-
-
13
14.2*
-
14.2*
14
15.2
20.0
15.1
15
16.0
17.1
15.9
16
16.5
17.6
16.5
17
17.2
17.8
17.2
18
18.2
18.7
18.1
19
19.1
19.4
19.0
Average All Ages
18.4
19.1
18.2
*Fewer than 15 cases

Tables 13 and 14 are based on 41,775 births by teen mothers
and 17,496 births fathered by teenage males in California in 2002
for which partner age is stated.

Source: California Center for Health Statistics, 2003

There is some indication that the wider age gap between partners, the more likely relationships are to be abusive. However, this may be a consequence of the types of individuals who choose much-older or much-younger partners than the age gap itself.

Older partners are not associated with healthier or less publicly costly birth outcomes. For example, California 16 year-olds who gave birth in 2002 experienced the following average birth outcomes, arranged by age of father:

Table 15: Selected Measures of Infant Health in Births by Teen Mothers, by Age of Father, California, 2002

Father Age
Birth Weight Grams (avg)
Percent Low*
Prenatal Care (Month Began)
Publicly Funded Delivery**
n
<18
3,165
9.3%
3.4
68%
979
18-19
3,210
8.7%
3.1
71%
1,398
20+
3,223
7.6%
3.1
79%
1,656
unknown
3,210
7.5%
3.9
75%
1,365

*Birth weight less than 2,500 grams.
**Paid for by Medicare, Medicaid, other government programs

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

These results are surprising. Sixteen-year-old mothers paired with older fathers tend to have babies with somewhat higher birth weights and to initiate prenatal care an average of two weeks earlier than those whose partners are under age 18. There is little difference in fetal outcome between mothers whose partners are slightly older teens (18-19) and those with older adult men. More puzzling, the younger the father, the less likely the prenatal care and delivery are to be paid for by public funds (predominantly Medi-Cal) and the more likely to be privately paid (most often, by parents' HMO plans).

... the vast majority (five-sixths or more) of the public expenses involved in childbearing by teenagers results from adult/teen, not teen/teen, liaisons.

If this pattern holds for other public costs, it would indicate that the vast majority (five-sixths or more) of the public expenses involved in childbearing by teenagers results from adult/teen, not teen/teen, liaisons. One would think older fathers with greater financial resources would generate lower public costs, but the opposite is the case. Perhaps younger teen fathers have more access to parents' private health agencies. More plausibly, perhaps adult men have greater access to public programs, or are more likely to abandon their partners, than younger fathers.

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Teens Marrying Older Partners

During the 1990s, preliminary 2000 census figures show, the proportion of teen males age 15-19 who are married nearly doubled, while the percentage of married teenage females rose only slightly.

Table 16: Change in Percentage of Teens
Who are Married, by Gender, 2000 vs. 1990

Age
% of Teen Males — Married
% of Teen Females — Married
2000
1990
2000
1990
15-17
1.8%
0.9%
1.9%
2.1%
18-19
7.1%
3.7%
10.9%
9.3%
Total
4.0%
2.1%
5.5%
5.3%

Source: US Census Bureau, 2002

As a result, teenage males under age 18 are almost as likely to be married today as under-18 women. What caused this trend (which occurred in similar fashion in California) — and who the increased number of teen husbands are marrying if not teenage women — remains a mystery.

In 2002, the census reports that 8,018 married teen men ages 14-19 were living with spouses in California. An additional 38,741 married teen males were listed as not living with spouses (circumstances not specified), but were not separated. This total of 46,759 married teen men in California in 2002 represents a doubling of the number married in 1990 (22,364). However, in 2002, 3,244 married California teen males fathered babies — a decline from the 3,485 babies married teen men fathered in 1990. Further, the average age of the mothers at time of birth for husbands ages 14-17 was 17.7 years, and for husbands ages 18-19, 19.2 years. If more teenage males are marrying adult women over age 20, they do not appear to be having babies with them.

A similarly drastic drop in marital fertility is evident for teenage women. From 1990 to 2000, the number of married teenage women in California rose from 56,920 to 62,531. Yet births to married teen women dropped sharply, from 24,083 in 1990 to 12,096 in 2002. The tables below show the ages of fathers in these births.

Table 17: Births by Detailed Age of Teenage Mother, Age of Father, and Marital Status, California, 2002

ALL Births

Father Age
Mother's Age
<13
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
Total
%
10-14
0
20
29
25
10
5
3
0
91
0.2%
15-17
1
48
258
835
1,358
1,213
731
335
4,778
9.4%
18-19
0
25
174
767
1,891
2,873
3,670
3,274
12,673
24.8%
20-24
0
17
140
578
1,801
3,998
7,165
11,507
25,206
49.4%
25-29
0
0
8
83
272
751
1,705
3,345
6,164
12.1%
30-34
0
2
1
11
53
118
418
866
1,469
2.9%
35-39
0
0
1
6
7
30
144
283
472
.9%
40+
0
0
0
2
7
8
42
128
186
0.4%
TOTAL
1
112
610
2,307
5,398
8,996
13,877
19,738
51,039

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

MARITAL Births

Father Age
Mother's Age
<13
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
Total
%
10-14
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0%
15-17
0
1
4
19
53
60
52
26
216
1.8%
18-19
0
1
4
46
189
344
645
741
1,970
16.3%
20-24
0
0
10
56
326
819
1,900
3,885
6,996
57.8%
25-29
0
0
2
20
75
226
590
1,241
2,155
17.8%
30-34
0
0
1
8
14
40
139
326
528
4.4%
35-39
0
0
1
1
2
12
47
108
171
1.4%
40+
0
0
0
0
1
3
11
46
61
0.5%
TOTAL
0
2
22
150
660
1,505
3,384
6,373
12,096

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

UNWED Births

Father Age
Mother's Age
<13
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
Total
%
10-14
0
20
29
25
10
5
3
0
91
0.2%
15-17
1
47
254
816
1,305
1,152
679
309
4,562
11.7%
18-19
0
24
170
721
1,701
2,529
3,025
2,533
10,703
27.5%
20-24
0
17
130
522
1,475
3,179
5,266
7,622
18,210
46.8%
25-29
0
0
6
63
197
525
1,115
2,104
4,010
10.3%
30-34
0
2
0
3
39
78
279
540
941
2.4%
35-39
0
0
0
5
5
18
96
176
301
0.8%
40+
0
0
0
2
6
5
31
81
125
0.3%
TOTAL
1
110
588
2,157
4,738
7,491
10,493
13,365
38,943

Source: Center for Health Statistics, 2003

Teen mothers are more likely to be married if they are older, their parents are older, and they live in wealthier counties (see above). Puzzlingly, the trend toward more marriage by teenagers of both sexes during the 1990s did not produce more marital teen births — just the opposite. This contradictory pattern may result from the flux created by the temporary economic boom of the late 1990s combined with growing economic divisions that render richer teens wealthier than ever and poorer ones poorer still (see Cohen et al 2002).

Teen mothers are more likely to be married if they are older, their parents are older, and they live in wealthier counties.

The decline in births to married teens comprises two-thirds of the total decline in teen births during the decade. In 1990, 419 per 1,000 married teen wives gave birth; in 1996, 407; in 2002, just 166. (By contrast, 24.6 per 1,000 unmarried teen females gave birth in 1990; in 1996, 19.3; dropping to 15.0 in 2002). Some of the post-1996 decline may have been affected, in unknown ways, by a change in California's method of collecting marital birth data in 1997. Even so, more teens apparently are getting married to mostly-older partners for reasons other than to have babies.

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Programs and Policies

The extensive adult involvement in what we call "teenage sex," including outcomes such as births and sexually transmitted infections, remains extraordinarily difficult for teen pregnancy prevention programs to address. After a brief flurry of interest in the mid-1990s, primarily centered on welfare reform and efforts to force older fathers to contribute to the costs of raising children, adult-teen childbearing has largely disappeared from the public agenda. As of the time of writing this paper (February 2004), very little mention, if any, is given to issue of teens dating older partners by the major organizations working on the prevention of adolescent pregnancy.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's 1997 report, "Whatever Happened to Childhood" mentions that "many of the fathers of children born to teen mothers are older" in one sentence and chart but provides no other perspective or policy recommendations (National Campaign 1997, p. 4). None of the several dozen "fact sheets" posted on the National Campaign's web page as of this writing focuses on adult partners. Nor is the subject broached in the Campaign's 2003 general fact sheet or addressed in its September 2003 fact sheet, "Characteristics of Effective Curriculum-based Programs," both of which are focused on deterring teens from having sex, promoting contraceptive use, and resisting "peer pressure."

Nor are older partners mentioned in the NCTPTP's September 2003 fact sheet, "Characteristics of Teens' First Sexual Partners," all of which are treated as voluntary relationships between "peers." This is surprising, given previous research indicating that first sex partners for teens who lose their virginity at a very young age tend to be considerably older, and in a majority of cases for those under age 15, the "sex" is reported as having been rape (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994).

Similarly, SIECUS's "Fact Sheet: The Truth about Adolescent Sexuality" does not mention that adults father most teen births and presents teenage sexuality as an issue of teenage peers (SIECUS 2003). The issue of adult partners is absent from Kaiser Family Foundation's surveys of teenage sexuality (see Kaiser 1998).

When adult partners are mentioned, they tend to be treated as anonymous, a kind of background or environmental variable, rather than as humans whose behaviors should be subject to analysis and policy recommendation. In "The Facts: Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Younger Teens," Advocates for Youth states that "adult men often father babies born to younger teens" and that "younger teens are sexually assaulted and coerced." Similarly, "Issues at a Glance: Components of Promising Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs" notes that "a further complicating factor is that adult men are frequently the fathers of children born to teenage women." However, none of AFY's recommended policies or prevention measures specifically address the issue of older partners (Advocates for Youth, "Components of Promising Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiatives" 2003).

When adult partners are mentioned, they tend to be treated as anonymous, a kind of background or environmental variable, rather than as humans whose behaviors should be subject to analysis and policy recommendation.

Likewise, a Child Trends' (2004) report pointing out that teens with older partners are less likely to use contraception offers no information on the adults involved. While targeting teens and parents with specific prevention messages, Child Trends' only prevention recommendation regarding adult-teen sex is that "parents need to be especially concerned if their teens are involved with older partners." No recommendations are made regarding the behavior of the older partners themselves.

An exception is Planned Parenthood of Northern New Jersey, whose Unequal Partners: Teaching about Power and Consent in Adult-Teen and Other Relationships curriculum (Montfort & Brick 1999) is designed for students ages 10-17. The curriculum focuses information, discussion, and educational exercises designed to illuminate legal issues, power in relationships, the unequal risks in relationships by gender and age, recognizing unhealthy relationships, and what "consent" entails. It includes both positive and negative testimonials from younger girls who have been involved with older men, and students' and adults' own views. For sample lesson plan from this curriculum, see this month's Learning Activity. For information about purchasing the curriculum contact Bill Taverner at 973-539-9580.

A major difficulty in addressing the predominant role of adult partners in teenage sexuality, pregnancy, STI, and childbearing is that it challenges the prevailing concept of a hermetic teenage world whose distinct needs and behaviors can be addressed in isolation from the larger society with the right mix of laws, policies, programs, and education. However, the uncomplicated definition and treatment of "teenage sexuality" and its outcomes as only involving persons under age 20 or under age 18 is not realistic.

Teenage sexual behaviors are inextricably integrated with corresponding adult sexual behaviors.

Both at the larger societal level (rates of pregnancy, birth, and STI are correlated at the highest levels of statistical significance with adult rates by year, locale, race/ethnicity, and economic standing) and at the individual level (adults are the partners in most "teenage" sexual outcomes), teenage sexual behaviors are inextricably integrated with corresponding adult sexual behaviors. (Recent efforts to expand the age group of concern to 15 to 24 only introduce a new set of older partners into play; in 60% of births involving a parent age 20-24, the other parent is 25 or older.) There seems an inherent contradiction in addressing teenage pregnancy as a social problem defined by the youthful, adolescent age of the mother, then assigning the younger mother rather than her adult male partner responsibility for preventing pregnancy.

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Conclusion

Unexpected trends — the rise in teenage marriage, mostly to older partners, and falling birth rates among married teens — rather than policy are driving the teen pregnancy issue. The contradictory patterns of the 1990s suggest that teenage pregnancy is evolving in new directions for unknown reasons.

The most common reasons given for the decline in births to teen females during the decade is more abstinence from sexual intercourse and more contraceptive use. However, the abstinence explanation does not fit the racial and marital pattern of California's and the nation's teen birth decline, which was far more pronounced among married mothers than among unwed mothers.

It seems counter-intuitive that married teens would be abstaining; more contraceptive use between teenage husbands and teenage wives is more plausible. But if greater use of contraception explains the decline in births, it is not clear why married teens would increase their use of contraception during the decade at a much faster rate than unmarried teens. Perhaps economics influenced the greater birth decline among married teen/teen couples than married adult/teen couples. But why was the decline slower among unmarried couples? And what kinds of programs would have influenced such a complex set of trends? This unexpected trend clearly demands more research.

Assuming that preventing teen births is desirable — a goal more recent research has disputed (Hotz 1997, 2000; Luker 1996) — is there any point in worrying about how old the fathers are? A distinct motivator for early childbearing is the fact that older, adult men provide incentive for impoverished teenage women from chaotic families to escape their difficult circumstances with partners that, presumably, can offer greater maturity, economic resources, and independence.

The best prevention strategy is to reduce the number of young women and men in circumstances from which escape through early parenthood is desirable. This may be why European social insurance programs to prevent family and child poverty — and programs such as Michael Carrera's Children's Aid Society's (CAS) Adolescent Sexuality and Pregnancy Prevention Program — that invest thousands of dollars per participant in redirecting the lives of poorer young women have shown impressive success in keeping teen birth rates low. Certainly, the United States' conventional sex education and abstinence programming have produced little demonstrable success.

The best prevention strategy is to reduce the number of young women and men in circumstances from which escape through early parenthood is desirable.

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References

Advocates for Youth (2003). Washington, DC.

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www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/fact sheet/fsprechd.htm

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The Facts: Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Younger Teens
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Wendell, D.A., et al. (1992, January) Youth at risk: Sex, drugs, and human immunodeficiency virus. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 146, 76-81.

Additional Resources

Am I in a Healthy Relationship (2004). A brochure developed by Planned Parenthood Cincinnati Region, 2314 Auburn Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45219. Phone: (513) 721-7635. Fax: (513) 287-6491.

Looking for Love: Exploring Teen-Adult Relationships. A 75-page curriculum and 25-minute video developed by Planned Parenthood Cincinnati Region, 2314 Auburn Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45219. Phone: (513) 721-7635. Fax: (513) 287-6491.


About the Author
Mike Males teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has served on the California Wellness Foundation's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative advisory board for five years, and writes a regular column for Youth Today. He authored four books on teenage issues, including Framing Youth: 10 Myths about the Next Generation (1999), and The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents (1996), as well as articles on teen sexuality for The Lancet, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of School Health and other publications.

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