News Release

Early intercourse and self-esteem linked in adolescent behavior

Self-esteem had opposite effects on young girls and young boys

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Indiana University

Self-esteem plays an apparent role in the loss of virginity among adolescents, according to a study by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine published in the April 2002 issue of Pediatrics.

Self-esteem had opposite effects on young girls and young boys. Young girls with high self-esteem were less likely to engage in early sexual activity, while young boys with high self-esteem were more likely to report being sexually active.

“This is the first study of its kind of young adolescents to demonstrate that self-esteem differences among young males and females are associated with subsequent initiation of sexual intercourse,” said study co-author Gregory D. Zimet, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and clinical psychology. “The study also showed that the level of self-esteem did not change in males or females following the loss of virginity.”

Researchers followed 188 adolescents from seventh to ninth grades at two Indianapolis-area schools for the data. Students completed a questionnaire and were administered a standardized test measuring self-esteem at the beginning of seventh grade. A second questionnaire was completed by the students at the beginning of their ninth-grade year. In the seventh grade, all 188 students included in the study reported no history of sexual activity.

Results indicated that boys with high self-esteem were 2.4 times more likely to initiate intercourse than their peers with low self-esteem. High self-esteem had the opposite influence on girls, who reportedly were three times more likely to remain virgins than girls with low self-esteem. Fifty percent of the boys with high self-esteem in seventh grade had sex by ninth grade, compared to only 29 percent of the boys with low self-esteem. Conversely, 40 percent of the girls with low self-esteem in seventh grade had sex by ninth grade compared to only 18 percent of the girls with high self-esteem.

“Gender differences may reflect a socially based double standard for sexual activity,” said Dr. Zimet. “Early sexual activity for boys apparently is not considered as socially unacceptable as it is for girls.”

The researchers said that since early initiation of coitus among girls is associated with greater susceptibility to human papillomavirus infection and other sexually transmitted infection, they determined that more prevention programs aimed at delaying the age of first intercourse are essential.

The lead author was Jennifer M. Spencer, Ph.D., who completed a pre-doctoral traineeship in Adolescent Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and is currently program director at Hamilton Center in Spencer, Ind.

The research was supported, in part, by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.


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