Young people in the Philippines are less likely to have sex by age 22 if their parents have a relatively equitable marital relationship, according to findings from a longitudinal, population-based study.1 However, the specific marital characteristics associated with delayed first sex differ for females and males. Young women are less likely to have sex by age 22 if, during their preteen years, their father turned all of his income over to their mother, their father did not physically abuse their mother, and their household and family were well-kept. Young men, meanwhile, are less likely to have sex if their parents made household decisions jointly during their son's preteen years.

Although numerous studies have examined parental factors associated with age at first sex, most of this work has been conducted in the United States, and little of it has explored parents' marital relationship and the mother's status. The authors of the current study sought to address these limitations by analyzing data from the Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey, a study that has been following more than 3,000 women who gave birth in 1983–1984 in the Philippines' second largest metropolitan area. Since the initial (1983– 1984) survey, five follow-up surveys have been conducted; the three most recent included not only the mothers but the children who were born in 1983–1984. The new analysis included social and demographic data, and information about mothers' status in the household, collected in 1994–1995; key characteristics included whether the mother worked outside the home, whether she contributed more than half of the family's income and whether the father turned over all of his income to his wife (women typically control the family budget in the Philippines). In addition, interviewers judged whether the mother was "high status"—whether she, her child and the household were well-kept. Other data drawn from the 1994–1995 survey included whether the father had ever beaten the mother, whether household decisions (e.g., major purchases, contraceptive use) were made jointly by the parents, and the child's educational attainment and performance. The primary outcome—the age at which the son or daughter had first had sex—was assessed in 2005, when the children were aged 20–22. Analyses, including descriptive statistics and Cox proportional hazards models, focused on the 1,661 mother-and-child pairs for whom data from the relevant follow-up surveys were available; data for males and females were analyzed separately.

At the time of the 1994–1995 survey (conducted when the mothers' mean age was 38 and the children were aged 9–11), about three-fourths of mothers worked outside the home, a similar proportion lived in urban areas and slightly more than two-fifths were classified as high status. Twenty-five percent of fathers turned over all of their income to their wives. Most household decisions (an average of 4.3 out of a possible five) were made either jointly or by the mothers alone. About one in eight mothers reported that their husbands had beaten them.

At the 2005 follow-up, the children's mean age was 21. Many of them (51% of daughters and 35% of sons) attended church at least three times a week. Daughters had completed an average of 11 years of schooling; sons, 10 years. Only 12% of daughters and 5% of sons had married. However, 47% of daughters and 67% of sons reported that they had had sexual intercourse; the vast majority of these respondents (91% of daughters and 98% of sons) had had sex outside of marriage. Mean age at first intercourse among sexually experienced respondents was 18 for both daughters and sons.

The characteristics associated with sexual debut by age 22 differed between males and females. Sons had an elevated risk of having had sex if they lived in an urban area (hazards ratio, 1.7); their risk rose with household wealth (1.2) and decreased with each additional year of their mother's age (0.98) and each additional decision that their parents made jointly (0.95). In contrast, daughters had an elevated risk of having had sex if their father had beaten their mother (1.4), and a reduced risk if their father had turned all of his income over to their mother (0.7) or their mother had high status (0.8). Their risk declined with each additional year of education (0.8).

The authors acknowledge two main limitations of the study. First, as with all surveys, respondents may not have accurately reported their sexual behavior because of embarrassment, recall errors or other factors; the researchers, however, note that the proportion of young people who had ever had sex was similar to that reported in other Filipino surveys. Another potential problem is that about half of the original sample had been lost to follow-up, although the baseline characteristics of drop-outs generally resembled those of participants who remained in the study.

Because several aspects of parents' marital relationships, such as whether they made decisions cooperatively, were associated with their children's sexual behavior years later, the authors point out, parents should keep in mind that "a family atmosphere that values women and fosters gender equity and cooperative decision making may lead to delayed first intercourse among children." Moreover, they say, families, schools, religious institutions and health programs in the Philippines "must acknowledge that premarital sex is widespread… and do more to prepare young people to make healthy, responsible, informed decisions about sexual activity."—P. Doskoch


1. Upadhyay UD and Hindin MJ, The influence of parents' marital relationship and women's status on children's age at first sex in Cebu, Philippines, Studies in Family Planning, 2007, 38(3):173–186.