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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.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Sex , Teens , Women's Health  
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I seriously doubt my weight or perceived weight had anything to do with my decisions about sex. Nope, it was the classic older man finds me desirable, therefore this is okay to do. And he's been snipped, so no need for a condom -- way before STD's were as public.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | November 2, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Does peer pressure enter into any of this? Teens are very peer oriented -- if somebody else is doing it they want to do it too, no matter the consequences.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | November 2, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Isn't sex supposed to be normal, the normal thing for humans to be doing? Isn't that what Medicine and Science has told us for more than a hundred years?

Why detective work in an attempt to get to the source of reasons why people, even young people, want sex? Isn't that what young people are SUPPOSED to do, anyway? act their sexual ages?

Sometimes I honestly don't understand what sometimes surrounds this subject --- it's as if sex and desire were tropical diseases

Posted by: raymonddempsey1 | November 2, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

It's all about reproductive opportunity, raymonddempsey1. If they understand the reasons by people have sex, they can devise ways to prevent them from having sex. And if they can do that, they can then control WHO they have sex with. The ones with the control will then be the ones who reproduce, and will shut out all the other contenders. Prevention or reduction of STDs is just a nice side effect.

Posted by: mhoust | November 2, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

The data presented in this article was utterly unenlightening. What can we conclude? I can only surmise that there are a lot of factors not presented that have far more to do with timing and frequency of sex among teens. That was a real letdown in terms of useful information.

Posted by: jay4811 | November 2, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

So let's get this straight: teenage girls of a variety of weights and ethnicities have a variety of sexual encounters (or not), a variety of sexual partners (or not), and varying perceptions of their body weight. A lot of noise to tell you absolutely nothing. Thanks for enlightening us (or not)!

Posted by: dukebdc | November 2, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

In response to previous comments, this is simply classic pediatric psycho-social (read psycho-babble) research.

Posted by: dre0251 | November 2, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Psychobabble? Where?
Psychobabble would be when someone tries to explain these observations (eg, they may have an elaborate discussion of how self-esteem in different subcultures could explain the contrasting findings).
This study (as reported) is just a collection of observations: they interviewed a number of girls, and this is what they saw (one can only hope that they used the appropriate statistical methods to sort out which patterns were unlikely due to chance).
Perhaps the psychobabble was in the paper, but went unreported. But it is definitely not here.

Posted by: Denswei | November 3, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

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