Alcohol use, unhealthy eating signal youths’ sexual activity: study

Alcohol use, overall risky behaviour, and even unhealthy eating can be predictors of early adolescent sex, according to a new report.

The study, entitled Socio-Demographic, Health, and Lifestyle Factors Influencing Age of Sexual Initiation among Adolescents was carried out by a three-person team from the Health Promotion Research Centre in the School of Health Sciences at NUI Galway.

It looked at the relationship between socio-demographic, health and lifestyle factors, and the timing of first sexual intercourse among 15 to 17-year-olds, using data in the 2014 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Ireland study of 879 sexually active adolescents.

It found socio-demographic and lifestyle factors were stronger predictors of age of sexual initiation, that the onset of riskier behaviour generally was significantly related to age of sexual initiation for adolescents, while alcohol use/drunkenness and unhealthy food consumption was significant among girls only.

“While sexual intercourse itself is not necessarily a risk behaviour, it may represent a threat to health and wellbeing when it occurs at an early age,” says the report.

“The timing of sexual initiation, as well as the context and circumstances under which it occurs, can have consequences in the short term and also later in life.”

Referring to the “relatively scarce” amount of sexual health data in this country, those behind the study focused on the HBSC report which found that 25.7% of boys and 21.2% of girls, aged 15-18, had experience of sexual intercourse, with very early sexual initiation (under 14 years) reported by 22.8% of sexually initiated boys and 13.4% of sexually initiated girls.

It found that initiation of risk behaviours such as smoking, alcohol use, drunkenness, or cannabis at younger ages was predictive of early sexual initiation among girls and boys.

It found that girls who reported lower levels of alcohol consumption or experience of being drunk were also more likely to have had sex at younger ages — something “in conflict with previous research reporting higher frequency of alcohol use at age 16 years by girls who experienced early first sexual intercourse”.

“While this may appear to be a positive outcome, the reason of this association is not known and may even be linked to a negative first intercourse experience involving substance or alcohol use which has been associated with higher levels of regret around first sexual encounter, and may in turn deter girls from subsequent alcohol or drug-related behaviours,” says the report.

An alternative explanation for this association may be relationship status leading to attachment and safer behaviours overall.

According to the study: “Among sexually active girls, a higher consumption of unhealthy food was a predictor of younger ages of first sexual intercourse.

“Unhealthy eating habits and early sexual initiation are both health-compromising behaviours and there is the possibility that these behaviours may represent some level of risk behaviour clustering unique to adolescent girls.”

As for boys, those who had fewer close male friends were more likely to first have sex at younger ages than those with more friends, while those with a supportive family are less likely to have reported first sexual intercourse at younger ages.

The report concludes that the findings indicate the importance of providing adolescents with adequate sex education at younger ages, “earlier even than through the post-primary school system”, and of a holistic approach to positive sexual health and wellbeing.

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