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Although the media tend to focus on teens' sexual relationships as ''hookups'' without emotional connection, teens themselves see things differently.
Looking back on the first time they had intercourse, 85% of sexually active teens viewed their relationship as a ''romantic'' involvement rather than a casual fling, says a study from Child Trends, a group that researches children and families.
The project is intended to help parents and educators understand the dynamics of teen relationships and not just focus on statistics. Findings will be of interest both to those who promote abstinence and those who hope teens will delay intercourse. Government statistics show that nearly half of teens have had intercourse before 18.
The study hopes to put adults ''in a better position to help teenagers make more responsible decisions about sex,'' says the report, ''The First Time: Characteristics of Teens' First Sexual Relationships.''
More than half (61%) of those who said they had a romantic relationship had intercourse within three months. ''The important message to parents is these romantic relationships transition to sex early on, and they have a small window of opportunity'' to influence teens' behavior, says study co-author Suzanne Ryan. Some teens will choose abstinence, but others will not. Parents can talk with them about delaying sex or using contraception, the report says.
The study raises some alarms: About 25% of the teens experienced some form of abuse in their first sexual relationship. Verbal abuse included name-calling and insults; physical abuse included throwing objects, pushing and shoving. Hispanics (17%) were the most likely to experience physical abuse.
Such findings ''are startling,'' says Tamara Kreinin of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. ''They show parents and educators need to talk about what a relationship is, what intimacy is.'' She says the research is ''hugely helpful'' to those planning programs for teens.
The study analyzed data on 1,909 sexually active teens in grades seven through 12 tracked in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, partially financed by the federal government. Although the teens were interviewed in the mid-'90s, the findings are the most recent data available on the characteristics of their sexual relationships, Ryan says.
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