Teens and Older Sexual Partners

Washington, DC — Teens who have a sexual relationship with an older partner may face adverse consequences not only in the short-term but also into young adulthood, according to new research from Child Trends. The study, published in the March issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, finds:


  • Among middle school and high school students, one in five girls (18%) and four percent of boys reported having a sexual relationship with a partner who was three or more years older than them.

o        Female teens who have sex with an older partner are more likely to acquire a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and to have a nonmarital birth in young adulthood than females with a similar-age partner.

  • Ten percent of female teens have had sex at a young age (before age 16) and with an older sexual partner, while less than 2 percent of male teens have.

o        The combination of having sex at a young age and with an older partner is linked to an especially high risk of an STD for girls.  Female teens who have sex before age 16 with a partner at least three years older are twice as likely as other females to test positive for an STD in young adulthood.

  • For male teens, partner age is not important, but age at first sex is.  Those who have sex before age 16 are twice as likely to acquire an STD as those who delay first sex, regardless of partner age difference.


“This study adds to a growing body of evidence that the combination of having sex at a young age and having an older sexual partner is particularly risky, especially for STDs among females,” saidSuzanne Ryan, Ph.D., the lead author of the study.  “When young teen girls have an older sexual partner, there may be unequal power dynamics that lead to less consistent condom use and a greater risk of an STD.”


In addition to age at sex and partner age, the study examined other adolescent relationship characteristics that pose a risk for young adult reproductive health outcomes.  Findings include:


  • Females who have sex with a non-romantic partner during adolescence are more likely to acquire an STD by young adulthood.
  • Male and female teens who have a greater number of sexual partners have a greater risk of a nonmarital birth by young adulthood.


Child Trends’ study, Older Sexual Partners During Adolescence: Links to Reproductive Health Outcomes in Young Adulthood by Suzanne Ryan, Kerry Franzetta, Jennifer Manlove and Erin Schelar, is based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative survey of youth in grades seven through twelve.


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children from pregnancy to the transition to adulthood.  Its mission is to improve outcomes for children by providing research, data, and analysis to the people and institutions whose decisions and actions affect children.