Nationally, 4–8% of U.S. adolescent and young adult men reported that they first had sex before the age of 13, according to a new analysis of data from two national surveys by Guttmacher Institute researcher Laura Lindberg and colleagues. In additional surveys in 17 metropolitan areas, rates of reported sex before age 13 varied widely by where young men lived and by their racial and ethnic background, with about one in four non-Hispanic black males reporting sex before 13 in some cities.

“Sex before age 13 among young men varies greatly depending on where they live,” says lead author Laura Lindberg. “It’s imperative to reach young men, including very young adolescents, before they start having sex, with information and health care services that reflect their needs and community experiences.” 

The authors analyzed national and metropolitan-area data from male high school and middle school students collected as part of the 2011, 2013 and 2015 waves of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) and national data from males aged 15–24 collected as part of the 2006–2010 and 2011–2015 waves of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).

The overall share of young men in metropolitan areas who reported in the YRBS that they had first had sex before age 13 ranged from 5% in San Francisco to 18% in Chicago, 19% in Milwaukee and 25% in Memphis.

In both the NSFG and YRBS surveys, non-Hispanic black males were more likely than other groups to report that they had first had sex before age 13, and these differences persisted in most metropolitan areas examined. For example, in Chicago, the share of males reporting first sex before age 13 was 29% among non-Hispanic black males, compared with 10% and 11% among non-Hispanic white and Hispanic peers, respectively. Differences within and between metropolitan areas indicate a need for investments at the local level to support and promote youth development, including healthy sexual development.

“Too often, the sexual health needs of young men are overlooked,” says Lindberg. “Outdated attitudes and harmful gender stereotypes leave many young men without needed information and services.”

Even when sexual health information and services are available for young men, those who have sex before age 13 are likely to receive them only after they are already sexually active, if at all. From an early age, all young people need comprehensive sex education that is developmentally and culturally appropriate and grounded in the needs and experiences of their community. They also need equitable access to reproductive health care services to support their sexual health needs, including services that meet the specific needs of males

“These findings do not represent a new phenomenon. The cultural double standard about sex in the United States—where it is okay for boys, but not girls, to be sexually active—has prevented us from effectively addressing male adolescents’ vulnerabilities and their healthy sexual development,” says Arik Marcell, co-author and associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Young men who reported in the NSFG that they first had sex before age 13 described a range of attitudes about this experience. Only 55% said that their first sexual experience was wanted, while 8% said it was unwanted and 37% said they had mixed feelings about it. The authors highlight the importance of recognizing young people’s perspectives and also note that reports of whether a first sexual experience was wanted may be influenced by gendered and racialized expectations, stereotypes, peer pressure and coercion.

As the national prominence of the #MeToo movement shows, there is a pressing need to teach all young people, including young men, about consent within comprehensive sex education programs, so that they are empowered to lead healthy sexual lives and help protect themselves, their peers and partners from exploitation, coercion and violence. Youth-friendly health services, counseling and additional support must also be available for young people who have experienced unwanted sex.

“Young men who have had sex before age 13 are underserved in national, state and local policies and programs,” says Heather Boonstra, Guttmacher policy expert. “Parents, health care providers, schools, communities and policymakers must work together to ensure that all young people have access to culturally appropriate information and services to support their healthy sexual development.”

Sex Before Age 13 Among Males in the United States,” by Laura Lindberg, Isaac Maddow-Zimet and Arik Marcell, is currently available online and will appear in a forthcoming issue of JAMA Pediatrics.