The length of time that sexually active adolescents—particularly young men—plan to delay intercourse with new partners decreases as the importance they place on sex in romantic relationships increases.1 According to a study of 14-19-year-olds in San Francisco, the value that young women assign to intimacy, the value they place on health and their perceived risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) are positively associated with the amount of time they plan to delay intercourse with their next main partner. Reported delays with most recent main and casual partners were generally shorter than intended delays with new partners.
The findings are based on data from 205 adolescents recruited at a public STD clinic in 1996-1998 who reported that they had ever had sex with both a main and a casual partner. (A main partner was defined as someone the adolescent was "serious about," and a casual partner was anyone who could not be described as "main.") Participants completed structured interviews that collected information on their demographic characteristics, perceived risk of STDs, STD status and condom use; the importance they placed on sex and intimacy in romantic relationships; and the importance they attached to various aspects of good health. Participants were also asked how long they had waited to initiate sex with their most recent main and casual partners, and how long they intended to wait with their next partner of each type.
The sample included 125 women and 80 men, whose mean age was 17.7; 37% were black, 22% white, 15% Hispanic, 11% Asian and 15% mixed-race. About half of participants' mothers had at least some postsecondary education.
The adolescents reported that they had waited longer to have sex with their most recent main partner than with their most recent casual partner (medians, one month and two weeks, respectively). Medians of past delay were shorter than those of intended delay both with main partners (one month vs. two months) and with casual partners (two weeks vs. one month). Significantly higher proportions of men than of women had delayed two weeks or less with their last casual partner (68% vs. 40%), and intended to delay 1-2 months or less with future main partners (65% vs. 46%) and one month or less with future casual partners (74% vs. 36%). The length of time adolescents had waited to have sex with their last main partner did not differ significantly by gender.
Bivariate correlations identified several possible predictors of intended delay with main partners: past delay with both types of partner, importance of health, importance of sex and perceived risk of STDs. Significant correlations were also found between intended delay with casual partners and past delay with both partner types, intended delay with new main partners, importance of health and perceived risk of STDs.
Psychosocial indicators of delay were further examined in logistic regressions, which controlled for demographic characteristics and STD-related attitudes and behaviors. Among male participants, the only psychosocial indicator that remained significant was the level of importance placed on sex in a relationship: Men's odds of intending to delay sex with main partners for at least two months decreased as the importance of sex increased (odds ratio, 0.4). Among female participants, the importance of sex was associated with shorter intended delays, with both main partners (0.5) and casual partners (0.4). No other variables were significantly linked to intended delays in casual relationships, but the more value women placed on intimacy in a relationship and on health, the higher their odds of intending to delay for two or more months with their next main partner (3.8 and 2.5, respectively). Perceived risk of STDs also continued to be a significant predictor of women's intentions to wait two or more months with a new main partner (1.1).
The researchers note that the study may not be generalizable to other adolescent populations and point out that the definition of certain variables may have affected the findings. They conclude that interventions that encourage sexually active adolescents to postpone intercourse with new partners should seek to increase the value that young people place on health and strengthen their awareness of the STD risks associated with having sex with a main partner. Moreover, they say, "directly addressing the value of sex and intimacy in primary sexual relationships and providing education on alternative ways of being sexual and satisfying intimacy needs...will allow adolescents of both sexes to identify healthier choices and encourage longer delays with main partners."
1. Rosengard C et al., Perceived STD risk, relationship, and health values in adolescents' delaying sexual intercourse with new partners, Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2004, 80(2):130-137.