Child abuse increases risk for early sexual initiation

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Children abused prior to age 12 are at increased risk for early sexual intercourse, according to a new study by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, San Diego State University, the Chicago Juvenile Protective Association, and the University of Washington.

The study, titled “Sexual intercourse among adolescents abused before age 12: a prospective investigation,” appears in the September 2009 issue of Pediatrics. Findings show that by age 14 and 16, youth with a history of abuse are two times more likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse than youth who have not suffered abuse.

Sexual abuse is a known risk factor for early initiation of sexual intercourse, but previous research did not investigate the relationship between other forms of abuse and early sexual intercourse.

“We examined neglect, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse,” says lead investigator Maureen Black, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. “For each type, we found the same relationship.”

This study is also unique because the history of abuse was collected from more than one source.

“We are the only study to use a combination of youth self-report and reports from child protective services to measure abuse history,” says Adam Zolotor, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina and a core faculty member at the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center.

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Moreover, the researchers collected reports of abuse long before sexual intercourse occurred. In the past, investigators asked participants to recall abuse and sexual intercourse that happened years earlier.

“This introduces the possibility of bias,” says Black, “because when looking back, youth tend to identify abuse as the cause of early sexual intercourse.”

The team also examined gender differences and conditions that make harmed youth particularly vulnerable. They found almost no variation between males and females and the likelihood of child abuse to affect early sexual initiation.

But emotional distress was a key factor that endangered mistreated youth. “Abused youth are more likely to experience emotional distress.” says Black, “which puts them at risk for early sexual initiation by age 14, maybe because they are ‘looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Surprisingly, emotional distress does not explain the relationship between abuse and early sexual intercourse in older youth. This is perhaps because sexual intercourse at age 16 is generally more common and less likely to be influenced by emotional health.

The research team recommends developing programs that reduce emotional stress for abused youth. Moreover, youth who are sexually active at an early age should be screened for abuse and emotional difficulties.

Written by J'Ingrid Mathis
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