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The Great Sexual Divide Starts Early

Girls prefer intimacy, while boys want to get going

FRIDAY, April 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- When it comes to sex, many men like to hurry and many women like to wait. This generalization won't come as a surprise to most people, but researchers are suggesting something new: The pattern may begin in adolescence.

A survey of teens found that males interested in physical intimacy push to have sex earlier, and females more interested in the emotional side want to postpone things.

"We see from these findings that this happens pretty early in life," said Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Emory School of Medicine, who is familiar with the study findings. "If you think of [an adult] couple who has a fight, she'll often say, 'Until we're doing better, I don't want to have sex,' and he says, 'If we have sex, we'll be doing better.' Kids are showing you the exact same thing."

Researchers also found that teens treat casual sex differently than sex with potential partners, just like adults. And, in a phenomenon that may sound familiar to their elders, teens also promise themselves that they'll wait longer to have sex next time.

Perhaps surprisingly, sexuality researchers haven't spent much time studying how adolescents make sexual decisions.

"We don't actually know all that much about what makes kids decide to have sex and when they decide to have it," Kaslow said. "One of the challenges is that researchers are adults, and kids don't necessarily feel comfortable talking about sex to them. It's a very private matter."

In the new study, published in the April issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, researchers interviewed 205 teenagers who visited a sexually transmitted disease clinic and reported having both casual and non-casual sex.

Males who emphasized the importance of sex in a relationship were more likely to want intercourse early. "It's not that all the boys are saying sex is important to them," said study co-author Cynthia Rosengard, an assistant professor of medicine at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. "But the ones who were are the ones who say they want to initiate sex sooner."

Meanwhile, females interested in intimacy -- or worried about health issues and the risk of disease -- were more likely to push for later sex. Some of the girls expressed a heavy interest in sex, but they weren't as likely to push for immediate intercourse as the other girls were.

Both boys and girls wanted to postpone future sex with non-casual partners for a median of two months; the median wait until sex in their past relationships was one month.

What can public health advocates do with this information?

Rosengard thinks they can use it to encourage the postponement of intercourse and help boys and girls understand each other.

"I'm hesitant to suggest that you need to have a completely different message for girls and boys," she said. "They both need to know where each other is coming from in the negotiation process."

Kaslow, the Emory psychologist, said the findings offer other lessons, too.

"What this really says is we need to do a better job of teaching our kids about intimacy," she said. "It's important for parents to convey that sex is special and beautiful in the context of a meaningful relationship. That may be a message that's easier to get across to girls than boys. To some extent, fathers or male figures are really going to have to step up the plate to communicate that to boys and to their sons."

More information

For more on teens and sexuality, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Teen Talk. For more on the pro-abstinence movement, visit the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

SOURCES: Cynthia Rosengard, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, Division of General Medicine, Rhode Island Hospital, Providence; Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., professor and chief psychologist, Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta; April 2004 Sexually Transmitted Diseases
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