Teen Health 411
Teen Health 411

What Motivates Teens to Have Sex

A recent article in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (2006) by Ott, Millstein, Ofner, & Halpern-Felsher, explored relationship goals and positive expectations about sex with 637 ninth graders. These researchers concluded that the youth valued intimacy the most, then social status, and finally, sexual pleasure.

With all the focus on the risk of sexually transmitted infection including HIV associated with sexual behavior, there has been plenty of research about adolescent perception of the negative consequences of sex, but little about what motivates teens to engage in sexual behavior in the first place. If the sexuality education teens are receiving focuses only on the risks, ignoring the reasons they engage in sex, I would expect that the education is destined to fail.

Sexual behavior can be motivated by perceived benefits including, the desire for excitement or pleasure, intimacy, or peer approval or respect (social status). The teens in this study expected sexual behavior to bring intimacy, pleasure and increased social status, but there were gender differences as well as differences based on sexual experience.

Not surprisingly these researchers found that girls in their sample valued intimacy significantly more and sexual pleasure less than males. Sexually inexperienced females thought that having sex would bring them more social status than did sexually experienced girls. Males reported higher mean expectations that sex would result in pleasure and social status than did females. Females and sexually inexperienced youth reported lower expectations that sex would meet their goals than did males and sexually experienced youth.

It would seem to me that if male and female teens are looking for intimacy and social status, we, the adults in their lives, need to help them identify non-sexual ways to achieve those goals. Especially in the case of girls, who seem to understand that becoming sexual may be a social liability, adults need to provide more discussion about how their expectations may differ from reality. The results in this article also would suggest that our stereotypes about males being motivated by pleasure may be inaccurate.

As parents, educators, and clinicians, it is important to be aware of the expectations teens have for sexual involvement and provide frank discussions and skills to help teens achieve intimacy, social status and even sexual pleasure, without sexual risk. It makes perfect sense to me that teens are looking for connection and closeness in our culture, I think we all are.

Photo credit: pchin

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.