Next week a British television channel begins the second series of a show called “The Joy of Teen Sex”. The programme promises “A bold, informative look at the love lives and sex lives of teenagers that tells it like it really is, and is definitely not just for teens.” Not just for teens? Is a show with such a misleading title useful for teens at all?
Several studies have shown that sexually active teenagers are more at risk of depression and suicide attempts than their abstinent peers. But even those apparently unaffected can have lingering regrets that they did not, at least, wait longer.
New research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last week shows that one in five teens who have had sex regret the fact, even when they approached the situation feeling that they were “in love”. External pressures and lack of self control meant that they went further than intended, or did not find the “joy” they anticipated.
Studies in the United States and Britain have shown that significant proportions of sexually experienced youth wished they had waited longer to have sex for the first time, or had some other negative feelings about having started too soon.
The new study, part of an ongoing international study called Project YOURLIFE and led by academics from various disciplines at the University of Navarra, Spain, takes us into the developing world and finds similar patterns of experience there.
It is a large study involving nearly 8,500 high school students of both sexes from public and private schools in the Philippines, El Salvador and Peru. The students, aged between 14 and 18 years, filled out detailed paper questionnaires with multiple choice options under conditions of privacy and anonymity.
Around one in three of the males (31.5 per cent) and one in seven of the females (14 per cent) reported being sexually initiated. However, one in five of the sexually experienced young people indicated that they regretted having already started to have sex. The proportion was higher for females (25 to 32 per cent) and lower for males (13 to 20 per cent).
Why did they start? While the girls were most likely to cite being in love, the boys were commonly out to “have fun” or find out “what it was like”. These reasons suggest that the teenagers were freely exercising what some sex educators see as a young person’s “right to express their sexuality”.
But there were also reasons that showed the young people responding to peer pressure. Males, particularly, tended to report: “Most of my friends already had sex,” and “I wanted to be more popular.” Among the whole group, many reported partner pressure: “I was afraid to lose him/her,” and “I did not know how to say no to a person who insisted.”
Furthermore — and to no-one’s surprise, surely — it was common that young people were unable to control themselves once they were sexually aroused, even though they had not initially intended to have sex. Viewing pornography played a significant part in this, particularly amongst the males.
Overall, more than one-third of respondents reported at least one external pressure, and about one-half reported at least one reason implying that they lost self-control. It was these factors that were most often linked with regret — particularly pressure from a partner, getting carried away by sexual arousal, and seeing sexual images.
Jokin de Irala, one of the authors of the study and vice-dean of the medical school at the University of Navarra, stresses the importance of these findings.
“Even if youth argue that they had first sex because they loved someone, when other motivations that have to do with lack of self control or pressure are also present, which is generally the case in adolescent sex, the risk of regret for having had sex is higher.
“Our study also shows that sexual arousal through use of pornography, masturbation and petting, leads to unplanned sex and later regret. This is an important issue when nowadays many are saying to youth, ‘No need for sex, you can practice petting or outercourse instead.’ This recommendation does not take into account that being carried away by sexual arousal leads to sex and regret.
“There is epidemiological data showing that being carried away by sexual arousal is not harmless.”
Although the study was carried out in predominantly Catholic countries and two-thirds of the students identified as Catholic, Dr de Irala notes that the increased risk of regret after sex involving pressure and/or uncontrolled situations remains even after adjusting for religiosity.
In fact, the proportion of students reporting regret was lower than in some other studies. For example, a study carried out in Scotland in the 1990s shows a similar proportion of girls (32 per cent) but a higher proportion of boys (27 per cent) saying sex had happened “too early”. In the US, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (National Campaign) in its three-yearly survey, With One Voice, reports that 65 per cent of girls and 57 per cent of boys (ages 12 to 19) “wish they had waited” — a percentage that has not changed over the years.
The authors of the Project YOURLIFE study say this may reflect differences in wording used to pick up this information. They presented students with the statement, “Deep down, I regret having already had sexual relationships,” whereas other studies have used, “I wish I had waited longer.”
Other studies also tend to ask about regret only in relation to the first sexual relationship, whereas the current study refers to having any sex at all. Young people who continue with sex are more likely to regret only the first time, and the authors say their figures are probably an underestimate.
All the same, they are high enough to warrant a greater effort to teach young people more life skills, to balance the messages that present teenage sexual initiation and relationships as a rite of passage — and a human right. Girls and young women in developing countries particularly need empowering to take control of their sexuality.
That pressure remains a serious issue even in developed countries is confirmed by the results of a recent survey of 1500 Black youths in the US carried out jointly by the National Campaign and the Black magazine Essence. Among those who had had sex, 47 per cent aged 13-21 (including 21 per cent of those 13-15) said they had been pressured to go further sexually than they wanted to. Of the male respondents, 54 per cent said they felt pressured by their friends to have sex. Nearly half of all respondents said they had seen pornography online when they were not looking for it.
Indeed, as outrage in the UK over the Joy of Teen Sex suggests, they could see pornography any night of the week simply by tuning into a television programme that is targeted at them.
Regret festering in the psyches of young people may seem a small thing to media bosses with eyes only for audience numbers and ratings. But those who set themselves up as advocates and educators of youth should see it as real harm, and focus their efforts on empowering the next generation against the pressures that beset them from their environment, their peers, and also from their own human nature.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
Cite as: Osorio, A., López-del Burgo, C., Carlos, S., Ruiz-Canela, M., Delgado, M. & de Irala, J. “First sexual intercourse and subsequent regret in three developing countries.” Journal of Adolescent Health. DOI:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.07.012
See original article on the Journal’s web page: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X11002503