Thirteen percent of sexually experienced female high school students have had two or more sexual partners in the past three months, according to an analysis of data from a nationally representative survey.1 Having had multiple partners in the previous three months rather than one or none is positively associated with a cluster of negative behaviors including fighting, smoking and binge drinking. Older students have reduced odds of having had multiple partners rather than a single partner in the previous three months.
To examine the factors associated with young women’s having multiple sexual partners, researchers used data from the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which included a nationally representative sample of private and public high school students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The survey asked students about their demographic characteristics, their number of sexual partners in the previous three months, their mental health in the previous 12 months, their violent behaviors in the previous 12 months, their substance use during the last 30 days and their sexual risk-taking behaviors at last intercourse. Using data from the 3,288 female respondents who reported ever having had sexual intercourse, the researchers conducted bivariate logistic regression analyses to determine the factors associated with young women’s number of sexual partners in the last three months; all factors found to be significant were included in multivariate analyses.
Overall, 54% of the young women were white, 20% were black, 8% were Hispanic and 18% were of other races or ethnicities. Thirty-one percent were in the 12th grade, 27% the 11th, 24% the 10th and 19% the ninth. Overall, 24% of the young women had not had a sexual partner in the last three months, 63% had had one partner and the remaining 13% had had two or more.
In bivariate analyses, being in 12th grade, binge drinking (i.e., having had five or more drinks in a row) in the last 30 days and nonuse of condoms at last sex were associated with increased odds of having had a single partner during the last three months rather than none (odds ratios, 1.5-2.1); mental health problems were associated with reduced odds of having had one partner (0.6-0.7). Having been in a physical fight, recent substance use, substance use before sex and nonuse of condoms at last sex were related to increased odds of having had multiple partners in the last three months rather than none (1.5-6.6). All of these factors except condom use at last sex were associated with increased odds of having had multiple partners rather than having had one partner (2.0-5.6); in addition, being black (1.7) and having considered or attempted suicide (1.6- 2.0) were related to that outcome. Being in 11th or 12th grade and having carried a weapon were related to reduced odds of having had multiple partners rather than one (0.4-0.5).
Many of the factors found to be significant in the bivariate analyses remained so in the multivariate analyses. Students in the 12th grade and those who had not used condoms at last sex had increased odds of having had a single partner rather than none in the previous three months (odds ratios, 1.7-1.8). Young women who had been in at least one fight in the previous year, had smoked two or more cigarettes in a day in the last 30 days, had recently binged on alcohol or had not used condoms at last sex were more likely than others to have had multiple partners rather than to have had none (1.6-4.5). Finally, blacks, those who had been in two or more fights in the previous year, those who had smoked two or more cigarettes in a day and those who reported a recent episode of binge drinking had elevated odds of having had multiple partners in the last three months rather than one (1.9-3.5); 11th and 12th graders had reduced odds of this outcome (0.5-0.6).
In light of their findings that young women in ninth grade were more likely than those in 11th and 12th grades to have had multiple partners, the authors recommend that "educational efforts...be initiated before or at the start of ninth grade, in hopes of impacting on this behavior." They add that the data "support the notion of a clustering of problem behaviors among certain youth," and suggest that interventions that focus on young women with such behavior clusters may be more effective than others.
1. Howard DE and Wang MQ, Multiple sexual-partner behavior among sexually active US adolescent girls, American Journal of Health Behavior, 2004, 28(1):3-12.