Girls’ First Sexual Encounters Are More Likely to Be Unprotected. How About We Ask Why?

Trigger warning for discussions of sexual violence, victim-blaming.

This morning I came across a post at a CNN blog about a new study (which has not yet been peer reviewed) on teen sex and sexual health. The aspect of the study making headlines both at CNN and elsewhere is this: “Girls take more chances during first sex.”

Even though teenage boys are known for their risky behavior, it’s girls who are more likely to engage in unprotected first sex, according to research presented Monday at an American Public Health Association meeting in Denver.

Nicole Weller, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, analyzed government data and found adolescent girls were 30 percent more likely than boys to have  sex without contraception during their first sexual encounter. Weller said that surprised her.

“It does because of the history of boys engaging in risky behavior across the spectrum and then seeing that females are having first unprotected sex is telling a different story,” Weller said. For example, teenage boys are more likely than girls to drink and smoke.

This framing immediately alarmed and horrified me, as it may some of you, for reasons that the Guttmacher Institute thankfully pointed out before I could:

But Laura Lindberg, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, said boys may still have a lot to do with it. She said teenage girls are less likely than boys to want to have sex when it happens for the first time and may not do as good a job advocating for birth control. Lindberg added that contraception at first sex is 80 percent condoms, meaning birth control largely depends on the boy.

In other words? Lots and lots of girls are being raped during their “first sexual encounters.” And while some rapists do in fact use condoms, they’re not exactly the most reliable in that area. Nor, barring a few exceptions, are rape victims usually in a position to negotiate safer sex, when they’re unable to negotiate the act of not having sex at all.

And horrifically, CNN was the only source I found that seems to be reporting this relevant tidbit. Though they didn’t report that other studies have shown that a gob-smacking 10% of young women’s first intercourse is involuntary — in other words, that we’re not talking here about just a handful of cases. Further, while CNN did at least take the time to point out the likely connection between first intercourse being unwanted and first intercourse being unprotected, that didn’t stop them from using stigmatizing language about those “first sexual encounters” as “taking chances” and “risky behavior.”

I can’t quite wrap my head around that. We’re talking about young women being raped, and calling it risky behavior. We’re talking about young women being raped, and asking questions about condom use. We’re talking about young women being raped, and the biggest concern at the front of our minds is about STDs. We’re talking about young women being raped, and we’re asking why they don’t know any better?

Of course, a rape victim getting pregnant or contracting an STD through the assault matters, and compounds the trauma of the rape itself. But when we’re talking about a rampant epidemic of sexual violence, STDs and unwanted pregnancies should really not be alone at the top of our list of concerns.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m sure that some of the young women who didn’t use protection during their first sexual encounters were consenting. Absolutely positive, in fact. And yes, their health matters, too, as does the health of young men and youth of other genders who aren’t engaging in safer sex practices. Further, with the information I have in front of me, I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the higher likelihood of young women to not use protection during their first sexual encounters is directly related to so many young women’s first sexual encounters being non-consensual. I’m aware that correlation and causation are not the same thing.

But I know how to make an educated guess. I know that other studies show a really strong correlation between sexual violence and teen pregnancy. I know that reproductive coercion is common, and that it is sexual violence. I know that while there’s even so much as a strong question in our minds — as there right now really, really should be — that unprotected first sexual encounters and non-consensual first sexual encounters are significantly overlapping, it’s unconscionable to go around portraying women’s unprotected first encounters as irresponsible and talking about how “risky” they’re being. And I know that as much as sex education is needed, “sex education” as we currently know it in the United States is not a solution to this problem, but is rather just being used as a cop-out.

And yes, “sex education” is exactly what’s being proposed as a solution — even though several news sources offer conflicting reports that exposure to sex education didn’t change the fact that young women’s first sexual encounters were more likely to be unprotected.

But while regular readers probably know me to be a huge proponent of sex education, I don’t support it as the sole solution to this problem. Certainly not sex education as we most commonly understand it. Real sex education that delves into issues of meaningful consent, bodily autonomy, and sexual rights may indeed be useful. But even that is not a magic bullet. Neither, even, is greater, more reliable access to condoms and other contraception, though that matters, too. Because none of these things are likely, at least on their own, to help the huge numbers of young women who are or have previously been abused. In that post from two years ago, I wrote:

[O]n the left there are cries for more comprehensive sex education and access, and on the right there is moral panic and proclamations that promoting abstinence is the only way. What the conservative opinion ignores/obscures is not only the unrealistic nature of their plan, but also the fact that engaging in sexual activity is not always a choice, and that refusing to talk about sex means also refusing to talk about what healthy, consensual sex actually is. And while greater access to and education about contraception is certainly needed, those of us on the left generally fail to note that greater access and education won’t help a teen who has been sexually traumatized and feels as though she does not own her own body. It seems that we may be focusing a good bulk of our efforts on an only partial solution, particularly in many communities of color where teen pregnancy rates are highest and sexual violence rates most disturbing.

Moral panics about “risky behavior” — which are really just a form of rape apologism and victim-blaming — aren’t helping. Research into why teens who have unprotected sex do so and a dedication to addressing the many varied forms of sexual violence plaguing our communities just might.

0 thoughts on “Girls’ First Sexual Encounters Are More Likely to Be Unprotected. How About We Ask Why?

  1. wiggles

    Even though teenage boys are known for their risky behavior, it’s girls who are more likely to engage in unprotected first sex

    My immediate response to that is to wonder who these girls are having sex with. How can girls be more likely to engage in unprotected sex when for each one of those girls there’s at least one boy having unprotected sex right there with her? That’s some bad math.

    The sex education you talk about in that post might eventually chisel away that thinking that disappears boys and men from any sexual responsibility. And if it’s done right, it could give abuse victims a route to redefine their own boundaries in a healthy way, even if it’s just to talk about what abuse is and to inform survivors where they can find help.

  2. jen

    wiggles, I’m pretty sure they’re comparing how many girls versus boys use protection *the first time* he or she has sex. So if boys are having their first experience with non-virgin girls, they may be using condoms at the girl’s request *that first time*. Meanwhile the girls having their first sexual encounter may be doing so with non-virgin boys. So the numbers don’t have to match up.

    But there’s a lot of room to be queasy about the statement that “teenage girls are less likely than boys to want to have sex when it happens for the first time”.

  3. April

    Wiggles, your expectation that each first sexual experience involves a both a young woman and man fails to account for those girls whose “first sexual encounter” is NOT with someone of the opposite sex. While this will not account for all the disparity between male and female respondents, between this and the potential rapes being a girl’s first sexual experience, we can perhaps begin to understand the statistics.

    Just as important to remember is how the surveys are phrased and conducted. In some of my anthropology classes a few years ago, a classmate conducted similar study, taking care to be certain to note the sex of the partner involved, consent and safety concerns. She found that how questions were framed greatly affected the results of the survey. I would love to know the methodology of this in order to better be able to draw conclusions.

  4. wiggles

    April, I thought of that after I posted, at least the part about heteronormative language and excluding lesbians. I figured CNN’s talking about PIV though, being the “official” means of losing one’s “virginity.”

  5. maggie

    My first thought also was, that doesn’t add up. But then I remembered reading somewhere that there was often an inverse relationship between the age of a girl who becomes pregnancy and the age of the male. In other words, when the pregnant girl is say 17, the male will more likely be around the same age. Whereas, the younger the girl is, the older the male is. So very young girls are more likely to be impregnated by an ADULT man. That seems likely to come into play here too. If a girls first sexual encounter is with an older, possibly adult male, then she often has very little say.

  6. Alemana

    Another thing that could have a lot to do with this finding is that culturally, women (especially young women) are not recognized as having much sexual agency. In many communities, a young woman who is frank about wanting sex and wanting to be safe is criticized (heck, in some places carrying condoms is considered “evidence” that you’re engaging in prostitution!). So, even if the sex many of these girls are having is “consensual” in the sense that they are desiring of intimate acts up to and including PIV, it may be severely bogged down by the girl feeling like she has to be passive and be “taken,” so even if she knows all about how important birth control is, she may be legitimately terrified of bringing it up, even when she does want to go to the next level romantically.

  7. Helen

    As a former teenage girl who engaged in so-called ‘risky behaviour’ (though not on my first time) I’m amazed at the stupidity and absolute disconnect of these researchers from the sociocultural world of the people they are studying. To simplistically say, oh wow, look at this, and we thought only boys did silly things, displays complete ignorance of the reality of discovering your sexuality as a teenage girl in a sexist world of ‘raunch culture’.

    First off I would say the author’s contention that these girls are being raped based on the Guttmacher researcher’s comment that they are less likely to want sex the first time is also a little simplistic – obviously this is a big problem given the high rates of virgin rapes (for want of a better term) noted in the other study, but to suggest that it is all because of rape is missing a wider problem. It may be that they didn’t want to deep down, but said yes because they felt they had to (explanation below). Point is, I’d like to add that it doesn’t have to be about rape to be a big problem for young women and this I think should be highlighted.

    Lots of young girls are having sex when they don’t really want to because social pressures tell them that they have to be having sex to really be ‘liberated’; otherwise they are uptight prudes.
    The same goes for being ‘chilled out’ and not making a fuss like insisting on a condom. There is a huge pressure, especially if you are of a liberal persuasion, or just want to be cool, to be the opposite of the prudish stereotypes of yesteryear (or today, depending where you look).

    This translates to an inability to say no, or worse, actually internalizing these values so much that it may even be their idea.
    Ariel Levy has a lot to say about this, though I’m not sure she makes the connection between this and unprotected sex. However, the connection was eminently clear to me after an unwanted pregnancy actually caused me to examine how much these ideas had been dominating my sexual identity and behaviour. Since then I have noticed similar tendencies among my friends and in the wider world, and I am now in my twenties. This shit doesn’t go away so easily. For example, a friend who would not come off the pill even though it was clearly causing her quite serious mental health problems because her boyfriend didn’t like condoms. He didn’t force her to, she just felt she had to. Thankfully she has now reconsidered.

    I would hazard a guess that this kind of stuff lies behind a substantial proportion of these stats. Particularly if they are trying to impress older men.

    Any thoughts people?

  8. RD

    Thanks for this Cara. I think it also applies beyond the first time too…there is a LOT of shaming around “risk-taking” for stuff that was not consensual.

  9. Aishlin

    That “teenage girls are less likely than boys to want to have sex when it happens for the first time” quote disgusts me. When “it happens”? What’s wrong with using the word rape? Or maybe the researcher was trying to describe the situation Helen brought up: when someone “didn’t want to deep down, but said yes because they felt they had to.” (Although I would still consider that a kind of rape -even in situations where we wouldn’t want to hold the physical perpetrator accountable as a rapist, we should still recognize that people subjected to unwanted sex are victims.) By the way, that was a great comment Helen. Thanks for writing it.

  10. EmilyBites

    This is just revolting – why are we still banging our heads against the wall on this issue?! Great article Cara, thanks.

    That wouldn’t surprise me. I was raped as a 15 year-old virgin by a 26 year-old family friend (and of course no condoms), and I have a couple of other friends that I know about who ‘had sex’ for the first time under the age of 16 with men over 20 (usually in coerced situations that were in fact rape).

    I hope this isn’t too OT, but what is also rendered invisible here in ‘girls are less likely than boys to want to have sex for the first time’ is a whole discussion about girls’ pleasure and piv not being the only kind of ‘sex’. OF COURSE girls are ‘less likely than boys to want to have sex’, when ‘sex’ means a guy effectively gets to masturbate using a girl’s body. Most women don’t orgasm vaginally, for many women sex is painful the first time – especially if they are unwilling (i.e. raped), a boy is guaranteed orgasm, and ‘sex’ is then over when he’s done.

    Why are people surprised that teenage girls aren’t as keen to have penetrative sex, in a culture where their desires and needs are sublimated to men’s, where they know that their ‘no’ is not taken seriously, and when they can’t guarantee their own safety from STDs?

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  12. Thealogian

    I am about to reveal myself as super old, but I remember in “A Very Special Episode” of A Different World, when Whitley was planning on having sex for the first time with Dwayne, she had no birth-control/condom plan because her first time should be “romantic.” All her girlfriends pointed out that a screaming baby isn’t “romantic” either (I was probably in middle-school when this ep came out).

    Anywho…real sex ed also examines how our concepts of “romance” dis-prepare us for real world concerns.

    The 10% of first sexual encounters being “non-voluntary” (agree, what’s that? Its RAPE) is disconcerting, but the additional 20% prolly has a lot to do with how we construct desire, gender and “romance” as passive for females and active for males. I will admit that I was pressured for quite a while by my first boyfriend before I had sex (it was very gender-normative and cliche), but I wanted sex but felt the necessity to play out this coquette thing I absorbed through my popular culture (of course, practicing safe sex wasn’t a question because it was what you simply did in our world…it was the assumption at a top rated small liberal arts college). I was lucky because I actually set the date and time…it was funny because I wanted to make sure that it was several days after his birthday because I didn’t want him to take “my virginity” as his “present”…isn’t it gross that that was a possible interpretation?

    Anyway, I am privileged and as such, its important not to join on with these so called “researchers” about what constitutes “risk.” I was at a group home for girls who have been sexually abused the other day–over 100 and all of their first sexual experiences were “nonvoluntary”–they were raped, molested, assaulted. I was there to do a profile on their art teacher, she’s awesome and their work is really moving…so many of their lives are mixed up in that 10%


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