June 15, 2006 -- Girls with an older boyfriend at a young age may be more likely to have sex by ninth grade.
And those with a serious boyfriend by seventh grade are also more likely to have had sex two grades later.
So says a study in June's issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Researchers included Barbara Marin, PhD, a consultant at the CDC's violence prevention division.
In their study, Marin and colleagues found that seventh grade girls who have had a serious boyfriend their own age are three times as likely to have sex by ninth grade as their less precocious classmates.
What's more, girls who'd had an older boyfriend by seventh grade were twice as likely to have had sex by ninth grade as those who'd had a same-age boyfriend by seventh grade.
'Cause for Concern'
So, the researchers want parents to take young love seriously. The findings suggest that "any 'serious' relationship in seventh grade should be cause for concern," they write.
And older boyfriends are of special concern. "Parents should be warned of the risks of interactions between middle-school females and older boyfriends, even when those boyfriends are only two years older," they write.
"Programs and parents need to find creative ways to address the risks of having an older boyfriend without making such activities appear more attractive than they already are," Marin's team continues.
About the Study
Marin's study included more than 2,200 middle-school students (1,070 boys and nearly 1,200 girls) in Northern California.
From grades six-nine, the students took annual surveys on topics including relationships and sex. The surveys varied a bit from year to year.
The sixth-grade survey asked girls if their menstrual periods had started. The researchers used that information as a marker of puberty. They didn't have a benchmark for boys' sexual maturity.
The seventh-grade survey included these questions:
- Have you ever had a serious boyfriend or girlfriend?
- How old was your oldest serious boyfriend or girlfriend?
The word "serious" didn't mean just sexual relationships. In fact, all the seventh-graders in Marin's study said they had never had sex.
Early 'Serious' Relationships
And, "In seventh grade, about half of both males and females reported never having had a serious boyfriend or girlfriend," the researchers write.
That means about half the students had had what they considered a serious relationship.
Most of those students reported having relationships with people their own age. Of the boys who'd had a serious girlfriend, 47% said their girlfriend was their age. Among girls who'd had a serious boyfriend, 31% said their boyfriend was their age.
When there was an age difference, girls were more likely to be the younger person. Eighteen percent of girls reported having had a boyfriend at least two years older than they were. About 6% of the boys reported having a girlfriend that much older than they.
Sex by 9th Grade
In the ninth-grade survey, students were asked, "Have you had sex in the last 12 months?" defining sex as a "man's penis in woman's vagina."
Most students answered "no" to that question. But those who had had a serious relationship by seventh grade were more likely to report having sex in the year leading up to the survey.
"One in 10 males and females who reported no relationship in seventh grade said that they had had sex in the 12 months before the ninth-grade interview, compared with at least one in five who reported in seventh grade having had a same-age or older girlfriend or boyfriend," write Marin and colleagues.
The survey didn't ask students to identify their sexual partner or that partner's age. So the researchers don't know exactly when, or with whom, students started having sex.
Boys, Girls & Age
Among boys, those with a serious girlfriend by seventh grade were twice as likely to have had sex in the year before the ninth-grade survey -- compared with the girls, who were three times as likely.
And while girls with a serious older boyfriend by seventh grade were twice as likely to have had sex as those who'd had a same-age boyfriend, no such pattern was seen between boys and older girlfriends. However, those couples were rare, which might make it hard to spot trends in that group.
Physical & Emotional Maturity
Girls who hit puberty early (menstrual periods by sixth grade) were more likely to have an older boyfriend by seventh grade.
"This finding is of concern because young females are experiencing menarche (the start of menstrual periods) at increasingly early ages," the researchers write.
They add that since physical maturity doesn't always come with emotional maturity, girls who start puberty early may need advice about handling sexual attention, especially from older boys.