Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
International Family Planning Perspectives
Volume 31, Number 2, June 2005

For Poor Brazilian Males, Sex Tends to Begin Early and is Often Unprotected

Males growing up in shantytowns of Recife, Brazil, often begin having intercourse at very young ages, generally without using condoms.1 Half of sexually experienced 13–19-year-olds participating in a 2000 survey had first had sex by age 15; only three in 10 had used a condom at first intercourse. The proportion who had used a condom was particularly low—28%—among respondents younger than 15. In multivariate analyses, factors reflecting parents' presence and their involvement in teenagers' lives were associated with postponing first intercourse and using a condom at that event.

The survey was conducted among unmarried teenage males in two of the poorest areas of Recife; a total of 1,425 youth participated. Fifty-two percent of respondents classified themselves as mixed-race; most of the rest were white (28%) or black (17%). Some 54% said they were Catholic, 15% reported some other religion and 31% no religious affiliation. The majority had completed more than four years of schooling. On the basis of the number of household assets and amenities the young men reported, 15% were classified as having a very low household living standard, 66% medium-low and 19% medium.

Slightly fewer than half of the teenagers lived with both parents; most of the rest lived with a single mother or with no parent or guardian. Sixty-four percent reported that they always needed their parents' or guardians' permission to go out at night, 30% that they sometimes did and 6% that they never did. Whereas 72% said that they could tell a young female any time they had feelings for her, 11% said that they could do so only some of the time and 17% said that they never could.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed were sexually experienced; reported ages at sexual initiation ranged from nine to 17, and the median was 15. Twenty-four percent of sexually experienced respondents said that the first time they had had intercourse, both they and their partner had been younger than 15, and 29% said that both had been 15 or older; most of the rest had been younger than 15 and had had an older partner. In 69% of cases, a respondent's first partner had been an acquaintance or relative, and in 27% a girlfriend; 3% of sexually experienced teenagers had first had intercourse with a sex worker. Overall, 31% had used a condom at first sex; the proportion was 28% among respondents who were younger than 15 at the time of the survey and 38% among those who were 15 or older.

Results of logit regression analysis identified a number of characteristics that were significantly associated with the probability of early sexual initiation in this population. Youth who had a medium standard of living, those with more than four years of schooling and Catholics had higher probabilities of initiating intercourse before age 15 (42–46%) than did the poorest teenagers, those with less education and adherents of other religions, respectively (27–37%). Two findings suggest that parents may play a role in encouraging young males to delay intercourse: Teenagers living with a single mother or with no parent had greater probabilities of engaging in early intercourse (48% and 44%, respectively) than did those residing in two-parent households (35%); and teenagers who did not need their parents' permission to go out at night were more likely than others to initiate sex by age 15 (44% vs. 39%). Finally, youth who freely expressed their feelings to females were more likely than shy teenagers to begin their sexual lives early (44% vs. 27%). The researchers acknowledge, however, that the last two variables may well be endogenous, and that the findings should be interpreted with caution.

Logistic regression analysis was used to identify factors significantly associated with the probability of condom use at first intercourse. Again, youth who required parental permission to go out at night had a reduced likelihood of engaging in risky behavior: The probability of condom use was 36% among these teenagers and 26% among their peers with more permissive parents. Degree of disadvantage also was a significant factor in this analysis; the least impoverished teenagers, who had a relatively high probability of engaging in early intercourse, had a greater probability than their poorest peers of using a condom at first sex (37% vs. 23%). The other key finding in this analysis pertained to the age of a youth and his partner: The probability of condom use was only 20% if both had been younger than 15, but it was 33% if the male had been younger than 15 and his partner had been older, and 38% if both had been at least 15 years of age. Additionally, the small proportion of respondents whose first partner had been a sex worker had a higher probability than those who had first had intercourse with a girlfriend of using a condom (64% vs. 35%).

The researchers note that in the shantytowns of Recife, young people often lack adult supervision and positive adult role models. Although the task is not a simple one, they recommend that reproductive health programs and media campaigns find ways to encourage parents' involvement with their children. More generally, they observe that particularly strong gender norms in Recife may encourage young males to engage in sexual activity, while logistical and cost factors may prevent teenagers from obtaining condoms. They urge the implementation of programs designed to enable male and female teenagers to take control over their sexual lives in a responsible manner.—D. Hollander


1. Juarez F and LeGrand T, Factors influencing boys' age at first intercourse and condom use in the shantytowns of Recife, Brazil, Studies in Family Planning, 2005, 36(1):57–70.