An interesting study just released in JAMA Pediatrics, a monthly journal from the American Medical Association, should grab our attention. The study, a joint effort between Johns Hopkins University and The Guttmacher Institute, raises a warning flag about boys and early sex.
Two national surveys showed that between 4% and 8% of boys reported having sex before they were 13. Black males were most at risk, followed by Hispanic males. In some metropolitan areas, more than a quarter of young, African-American men reported having sexual intercourse before age 13.
"Young men having sex before age 13 usually haven't received the appropriate sex education and services, and we need a better system to respond to their needs," said Arik Marcell, M.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
"The cultural double standard about sexual behavior in the United States, in which it is OK for young boys, but not girls, to be sexually active, has prevented us from effectively addressing male adolescents' vulnerabilities and their healthy sexual development," added Marcell, who has a Master of Public Health degree.
Marcell explained that he has heard boys and adolescents talking about their first sex encounters in a way that suggests they didn't anticipate, understand or know what was happening or what is appropriate and what is not. It is concerning that such early sex experiences happening to boys could be unwanted and influence their future health. Marcell and his colleagues used the survey data to attempt to get a better look at the scale and pattern of this problem across the nation.
The investigators underscored the importance of recognizing young people's perspectives and also noted that reports of whether a first sexual experience was wanted may be influenced by gender and race expectations, stereotypes, peer pressure and coercion. Parental education also appeared to have an impact. For instance, boys whose mothers graduated from college were 69 percent less likely to have sex before 13.
As to why there are such variations in early sex rates, Guttmacher Institute researcher Laura Lindberg said, "Adolescent males' attitudes and values about their sexuality and masculinity are influenced by the social context of their community.
"Our findings reflect that where you live exposes you to different social norms about manhood," she added. "The variation across settings means that programs for young people's development and health need to be tailored and responsive to the communities they are in."
In many instances, it seems like massive strides have been made when it comes to educating kids about sex, but this study clearly indicates there is still work to be done. All young people need to receive sex education, and parents need to be ready to have open, honest and ongoing talks with their kids.
The best time to start talking with children about sex is when they are young. Look for teachable moments, such as when you see a pregnant woman or a peer's new brother or sister, as a natural discussion starter.
Focus your conversation with elementary-age children on the correct names of sexual organs and body parts, explaining sex and reproduction, personal boundaries, pregnancy and building healthy relationships.
If they are old enough to ask questions, they are old enough to receive correct answers, but make sure to clarify your child's question. When you understand the question, answer it briefly and simply. Sometimes kids have questions, but they are afraid to ask. This is why it is important for parents to look for opportunities to discuss these important matters.
Talking about sex is just as important as talking about drugs and alcohol, smoking, stranger danger and pornography. If this feels overwhelming to you, you might want to practice talking privately with your spouse or another adult first. The most important thing is that conversations are happening and you are an askable parent.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.