More than half of sixth graders surveyed in Northern California have never had a serious romantic relationship, but about a third have had a same-age boyfriend or girlfriend, and one in 10 have had a boyfriend or girlfriend two or more years their senior.1 Those who have been involved with an older person are more likely than others to be sexually experienced and to have experienced unwanted sexual advances; they also are more likely to perceive that their peers have had sex or approve of doing so.
The survey, conducted in 1997, included 2,829 urban, ethnically diverse sixth graders in 19 middle schools. On average, the students were about 11.5 years old; their ages ranged from 10 to 13 years. Fifty-six percent of the sixth graders had never had a serious romantic relationship, 35% had had a boyfriend or girlfriend less than two years older than they, and 9% had been involved with someone at least two years older.
In analyses of variance and bivariate logistic regression analyses, students who had had an older boyfriend or girlfriend differed from both those who had never had a relationship and those who had been involved with someone their age. They were significantly more likely to be Hispanic and less likely to be culturally assimilated; they had less-educated mothers and lower educational aspirations than the students in the other groups. Sixth graders who had had an older boyfriend or girlfriend also were the most likely to say that their friends were sexually active or wished to be, and the most likely to have experienced unwanted sexual advances. Females in this group were more likely than others to have already menstruated. On most measures, results for students who had had a same-age boyfriend or girlfriend were between those for their peers who had not had a relationship and their peers who had been involved with someone older.
Four percent of the students--5% of the boys and 3% of the girls--reported that they had had sexual intercourse. Those who had ever had a romantic relationship were more likely to have had sex than were those who had never had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Additionally, the greater the age difference between students and their oldest boyfriend or girlfriend, the more likely it was that they had had sex: In all, 1% of those who had never had a romantic attachment had had sex, compared with 6% of those with a same-age boyfriend or girlfriend and 19% of those with an older boyfriend or girlfriend. (The researchers emphasize that the survey did not ask students the age of their sexual partner; therefore, one cannot assume that the oldest boyfriend or girlfriend was also a sexual partner.) For boys, the proportions are similar to the overall pattern; among girls, however, the proportion who had had sex reached 39% among those who had been involved with someone five or more years their senior.
Finally, the researchers conducted multivariate logistic regression analyses to assess which characteristics had independent effects on sixth graders' likelihood of having initiated sexual activity. Boys who had had a same-age girlfriend were significantly more likely than those who had never had a girlfriend to be sexually experienced (odds ratio, 3.1); the odds were further elevated for boys who had had an older girlfriend (4.7). The odds of sexual initiation also were heightened for boys who had experienced unwanted sexual advances (2.2) and increased as peers' acceptance of sexual activity grew (4.3). The more acculturated boys were, the less likely they were to have begun having sex (0.6).
Girls also had significantly elevated odds of sexual initiation if they had been romantically involved with someone their age (6.1) or, especially, with someone older (11.9). Again, peer norms that encouraged sexual activity were associated with increased odds of sexual initiation (2.3). In addition, girls' odds of having had sex declined as their grades increased (0.8).
According to the authors, sixth graders who have had a boyfriend or girlfriend are at "substantial risk" for early sexual activity. This is of particular concern, the researchers comment, not only because sixth graders are developmentally too young to have sex, but also because young girls with older boyfriends may be at particular risk for HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy. The consequences for Hispanic girls are especially troubling, since Hispanic adolescents have lower rates of contraceptive use and higher birthrates than teenagers in other ethnic groups.
This study also demonstrates the significant role that older boyfriends and girlfriends play in early sexual initiation. Preadolescent relationships with older partners, according to the researchers, "are particularly risky because they are associated with unwanted sexual advances and peer norms encouraging sexual activity." The authors conclude that "interventions are needed that provide young people with a sense of their personal power, the ability to state feelings and needs, and an ability to set limits and personal boundaries." They also emphasize the need to "alert young people to the special risks of relationships with older partners."-- J. Liebmann-Smith
1. Marín BV et al., Older boyfriends and girlfriends increase risk of sexual initiation in young adolescents, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2000, 27(6):409-418.