- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In the wake of news that one in four U.S. teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease comes a new message: Young teen girls who have older guys as sex partners are at higher risk for getting a sexual disease than girls who wait to have sex or only have sex with boys closer to their ages.

“I think that parents need to be very aware of the partners that their teens are dating,” said Suzanne Ryan, lead author of a study released today in the March issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, published by the Guttmacher Institute..

“What we found,” said Miss Ryan, “is that for girls, a combination of factors — having sex before their 16th birthday and having a sex partner at least three years older than them — is especially risky in relation to getting sexually transmitted diseases [STDs] in young adulthood.”

Based on this research, parents should discourage such age-difference relationships, said Miss Ryan, who is a senior researcher at Child Trends, a nonpartisan research organization in the District.

There may be a “power” issue in play, she explained, with an older boy having too much influence over a younger girl.

Parents should consider discouraging their high-school freshmen daughters from dating senior boys, she added, “because that fits into this three-year age gap that we’re talking about.”

Miss Ryan and her Child Trends colleagues examined data from about 11,000 teens in the seventh to 12th grades in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

They found that relatively few teens had sex before age 16 — about 10 percent of girls and 2 percent of boys.

But if a girl started to have sex at a young age and her sex partners included a male at least three years older than her, she was significantly more likely to have contracted an STD by her early 20s, compared with girls who started having sex later in their teens or who only had sexual partners close to their ages.

For boys, starting sex at a young age — regardless of the age of the female sex partner — was associated with acquiring a STD by young adulthood.

STDs are becoming rampant among American youth, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week, when it released evidence that 26 percent — or one in four — of U.S. teen girls ages 14 to 19 had at least one common STD.

Miss Ryan’s study recommends that teens and young adults receive education that defines and promotes healthy sexual relationships and behaviors — a subject that Kay Reed knows well, since she helps market “Connections” and “LoveU2” curricula for the Dibble Institute for Marriage Education in Berkeley, Calif.

“Teens are hungry for this kind of information,” Miss Reed said.

They get plenty of instruction about human “plumbing,” but “we aren’t talking to them at all about even the most basic [relationship issues] — crushes, infatuations, puppy love” or how to recognize and sort out bad relationships, she said.

Yet they are the very subjects that occupy teens, she added. “They aren’t discussing quadratic equations on Facebook.”

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