10 Aug 2018

Sex education for teens may not reflect reality of behaviour: study

Sex education for heterosexual teen boys
not keeping pace with their practices.
Image: Shutterstock 11003867
by Anne Crawford

A study about the sexual experiences of heterosexual teenage boys by Monash University researchers suggests that sex education is not keeping pace with their practices.

Led by the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, Central Clinical School, the study is the first to provide data on the early sexual experiences of Australian heterosexual boys including the sequence and timing of their first oral, vaginal and anal sex experiences with women.

The researchers surveyed 191 men aged 17 to 19 recruited from sexual health, family planning and youth clinics, universities and TAFE campuses across Australia about their past and present sexual experiences.

The study found that 94.2% had had some sexual contact with a woman over their lifetime. Of these: 68.6% had had both oral (fellatio) and vaginal sex; 22% had oral, vaginal and anal sex; 2.1% had vaginal sex only; and 1.6% had oral sex only.

It found that the median age at first oral sex was 16.4 years and was 16.9 years for first vaginal sex, and that the first experience of anal sex was 18.2 years.

Dr Eric Chow, Senior Research Fellow and first author, said that non-coital sexual experiences such as oral sex may be a means to develop trust and comfort within a relationship, and demonstrate sexual skills before first vaginal sex, and that young people did consider oral sex as ‘sex’.

Dr Chow said most previous studies had only reported the proportion of men engaged in different sex acts and that there had been no studies looking at the temporal sequence/order for the first experience of different sex acts.

“It’s important to gain a better understanding of the sexual behaviour patterns among teenagers to inform public health messages and programs aimed at improving the sexual health of young people,” he said.

A total of 1187 female partners were reported by 169 men who had vaginal sex with a woman. Of these 54.3% were the same age as the man; 28.3% were a year or younger and 17.4% a year or more older.

Around one in three respondents reported using condoms at last vaginal sex.

Half the men in the study did not use a condom at their last episode of anal sex, possibly because most consider condoms as a form of contraception rather than as protection against HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI), the study reported.

Generally, where anal sex is practised by young heterosexual men, it is as part of a greater sexual repertoire that includes vaginal and/or oral sex, it found. Studies elsewhere have shown that engaging in anal sex among teenagers is influenced by viewing pornography, in which condoms are largely absent. Condomless anal sex may increase the risk of HIV and rectal STI.

The study recommends that information for young people about sex and the dangers of STIs be improved.

Sex education information in Australia is currently mostly based on biology and contraception, with less focus on STIs, relationships and sexuality, it says. Furthermore, sexual practices other than penile-vaginal sex, such as oral and anal sex, may be considered taboo and hence are not covered in current sex education programs despite the frequency with which young people engage in these activities, and the risks they may pose. Non-school-based sex education, improved school-based programs and safer sex promotion using campaigns and social media targeting young people are necessary, the report concludes.

The researchers note that the study has limitations including that many men were recruited from sexual health clinics which may have biased towards more sexually active men so reported behaviours may not be representative of all teenage heterosexual boys in Australia.

Dr Marcus Chen was the senior author on the paper.

Chow EPF, Wigan R, McNulty A, Bell C, Johnson M, Marshall L, Regan DG, Owen L, Brotherton JML, Bradshaw CS, Fairley CK, Russell D, Chen MY; IMPRESS Study Group. Early sexual experiences of teenage heterosexual males in Australia: a cross-sectional survey. BMJ Open. 2017 Oct 15;7(10):e016779. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016779.

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