The context and circumstances of early sexual initiation among adolescents in Ireland: A mixed methods investigation
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Adolescents who initiate sexual intercourse at early ages may be at a heightened risk of negative sexual health outcomes at the time of first sex and later in life. In the case of Ireland, there is inadequate knowledge about the specific correlates of early sexual initiation among adolescents. Underpinned by Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory of Human Development, early sexual initiation and the relationship between contextual socio-demographic, health and lifestyle factors, and the timing of first sexual intercourse is explored. The study employed an explanatory sequential design and analyses data from sexually active 15-17 year olds collected through the Irish 2014 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study Socio-demographic and lifestyle factors were a stronger predictor of age of sexual initiation for girls than boys, which was also associated with early risk behaviour initiation. Family support and number of male friends were significant predictors among boys only. Reporting the use of alcohol or experience of being drunk, and unhealthy food consumption were significant factors for girls only. Of the nationally representative sample, 37.4% of boys and 26.5% of girls reported initiating sexual intercourse before the age of 15 years, and they were significantly more likely to have an older partner and less likely to have used condoms at the time of first sex compared to those who initiated at older ages. Early initiators were also less likely to be happy with the timing of first intercourse, Qualitative workshops collated feedback and perspectives from adolescents on the quantitative findings. Through the process of thematic analysis four main themes were identified: decision-making, power imbalances, social judgement and adolescents’ recommendations, with substantial variation across boys and girls. This study provides an insight into the specific contexts and circumstances associated with early sexual initiation, and revealed clear gender differences in both the factors and behaviours related to the timing of first sexual intercourse as well how this is experienced. It emphasises the need for holistic as well as targeted approaches to sexual health promotion. Adolescent sexual health is socially and politically relevant in Ireland at this time as an update of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) has been mandated. These findings can feed into curricula to equip adolescents with the skills and competence to successfully navigate sexual situations socially, emotionally and physically.
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