Why Sex Education Can’t Wait: Sex Before Age 13 is More Common Than You Think

In the United States, the average age of first sexual intercourse is 17 for men, according to data from the CDC. The number is roughly the same for women, and it has remained pretty constant for the last two decades. Based on these data, some parents might be tempted to think that talking to their kids about sex can wait until they’re fairly grown up and almost ready to leave for college; however, that would be a poor assumption to make. 

It turns out that there is wide individual variability in when adolescents start having sex and a new study suggests that, on average, about 1 in 12 high school boys in the US say they’ve had sex before the age of 13—and, for certain groups of boys, the number may actually be more like 1 in 4.

In this study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers analyzed data from two representative surveys of American youth, one of which included 19,916 male high school students and another that included 7,739 males aged 15-24. 

Analysis of the high school sample revealed that 7.6% of male students reported having had sex (defined specifically as vaginal intercourse in this research) before the age of 13; however, the number varied across U.S. cities, ranging from 5% in San Francisco to 25% in Memphis. Compared to students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, African American youth were the most likely to report early experiences with intercourse. 

Analysis of data from the other sample (in which participants were aged 15-24) yielded lower numbers—specifically, 3.6% of them reported having had intercourse before age 13. It’s not exactly clear what accounts for the discrepant figures between samples, especially given that the surveys were conducted in different years and the data were gathered in different ways (the larger study was a school-based survey, while the smaller one was a household-based study). It’s possible that the truth may be somewhere in between, meaning that 4-8% of boys are probably having sex before age 13. 

One other thing worth noting is that the researchers looked at whether these early sexual experiences were wanted or unwanted—and what they found was that a majority (55%) described them as wanted, whereas 37% reported mixed feelings and 9% said they were unwanted. 

Although this research only focused on male youth, the results have important implications beyond any one gender. It appears that a lot of adolescents are having sex at a very young age, especially in light of the fact that the number of boys who said they had sex before age 13 was as high as 25% in certain geographic areas. Waiting until high school is therefore too late for many youth to receive sex education because they’ve already become sexually active.  

This suggests that sex education is likely to be most effective when begun in middle school or earlier. That said, these findings have implications that extend well beyond sex education—they also have implications for healthcare providers. Those who take care of young patients may be making incorrect assumptions about the behaviors of their patients, leading them to ignore their sexual health needs. We would therefore all do well to recognize that there is a lot of diversity in sexual development and experiences. 

In need of information or advice on how to talk to your kids about sex? Check out this article

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To learn more about this research, see: Lindberg, L. D., Maddow-Zimet, I., & Marcell, A. V. (2019). Prevalence of Sexual Initiation Before Age 13 Years Among Male Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States. JAMA Pediatrics.

Image Credit: 123RF/radiantskies

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