Teen girls and risky sex
It's tempting to assume that teenage girls who have unprotected sex at an early age do so because they're hot to trot, in a hurry and ill-informed.
But new research suggests things are much more complicated than that. Reporting in the November issue of Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh researchers found a complex set of relationships between high-school girls' actual and self-perceived body weight and their likelihood of having engaged in various risky sexual behaviors. These included having intercourse before turning 13, having sex with more than four partners, consuming alcohol in connection with sex and having sex without a condom.
Those relationships varied according to ethnicity, which makes the situation even more tricky to sort out.
In brief, the study found that:
- Caucasian girls who thought they were underweight -- whether they actually were or not -- were more likely to have had sex and to have had four or more sexual partners than those who thought their weight was normal. Caucasian girls who were truly overweight were less likely to use condoms.
- Underweight African-American girls were less likely to use condoms than those of normal weight, and overweight African-American girls were more likely to report four or more sexual partners.
- Latina girls of all weights were more likely to engage in a wide variety of risky sexual behaviors, from lack of condom use and sex before age 13 to having more than four sexual partners during their teens and using alcohol.
Breaking from findings in earlier studies, the new research found no association between high-school girls' body-mass index -- which indicates whether a body is under-, over- or of normal weight -- and their ever having had sex. On the other hand, girls who perceived themselves as overweight were less likely to ever have had sex.
"Our data suggest that knowing how a girl perceives her weight may be as important as knowing her actual weight," the study concludes. It notes that attitudes about ideal weight vary according to ethnicity and culture and should be considered, too, when devising targeted sex-education programs.
Last week's Washington Post article about Irene Vilar, who had 15 abortions, the first at age 18, before finally deciding to follow through with a pregnancy and who now is the mother of two young girls, illustrates what is clearly an extreme situation. As the article notes, Vilar became pregnant soon after her first sexual encounter. "Over the next 15 years," the story continues,
she seesaws between taking birth-control pills and "forgetting" to take them. She returns time and again to abortion clinics despite the pleadings of doctors and friends. In a convoluted way, she feels a sense of control because she can start a pregnancy and she can end it.
Vilar's story, like the Pediatrics study, reminds us that girls and young women often engage in sex for reasons that may have little to do with unbridled physical desire.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
November 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Sex , Teens , Women's Health
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