Why do young teens have sex? While a recent study suggested sexy media images might be to blame, a new study shows kids might also be motivated by relationship goals like intimacy and social status.

Teens want their relationships to bring them intimacy, social status, and sexual pleasure --and they have a strong expectation these goals will be fulfilled if they have sex, according to a reportin the June 2006 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

The report says these perceived benefits should be considered along with the risks (sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy) when developing programs aimed at preventing early teen sex.

Mary Ott, MD, from Indiana University, along with colleagues from the University of California, San Francisco, sought to find out why young teens want -- or would want --to have sex (defined in this study as male-female intercourse). They surveyed 637 ninth-graders in two socioeconomically and ethnically diverse Northern California schools.

Where Do Kids Learn About Sex?

Gender Differences

About 57 percent of the kids were girls, 43 percent boys, and most were 14 years old.

The researchers found the boys and girls valued relationship goals differently:

Girls considered intimacy significantly more important than boys did. Boys reported higher expectations that sex would lead to pleasure and social status.

Of the teens who answered a question about sexual experience, 13% said they had had sex. The experienced teens considered intimacy and sexual pleasure significantly more important as a relationship goal than the inexperienced teens did.

As for social status, sexually experienced girls saw less value in that than inexperienced girls did. There was no difference of opinion about social status between experienced and inexperienced boys.

The researchers say this supports the double standard that sex improves the social status of boys but jeopardizes it for girls.

Generally, teens expected sex to help them reach goals of intimacy, pleasure, and social status. However, girls and sexually inexperienced teens had lower expectations.

Prevention Tactics

The researchers say programs to dissuade early teen sex usually focus on the negative -- the risks of STDs and pregnancy.

Teens might heed the message better, they say, if the positive expectations -- "developing a sense of intimacy, achieving social skills and goals, and experiencing sexual pleasure" -- are recognized and alternative ways to achieve those goals suggested.

By Lisa Habib, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Ott, M. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, June 2006; vol 38: pp 84-89. WebMD Medical News: "Media May Prompt Teen Sex."