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Perceptions of Self Leading to Early Sexual Debut Among Adolescents

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Early sexual debut is commonly defined as having had first sexual intercourse at or before age 14 years and is associated with risks to sexual and reproductive health. It is associated with risky sexual behaviors, multiple sexually transmitted infections, cancer of the cervix and early marriages. Both girls and boys with a sexual debut before14 years of age have more sexual partners and as much as two times more experience of anal sex at the age of 18 than girls and boys with a later sex debut. An early debut might explain the experience of having more sexual partners, simply because they have spent more time engaging in sexual activity. It could, however, also indicate a trend of increased risk-taking sexual behavior, as well as other risky behavior, such as substance use and antisocial behavior.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the onset of sexual activity typically occurs by age 20 with the median age at first intercourse ranging from 16-19 years.

According to the KDHS 2014, Fifteen percent of women age 20-49 had their first sexual intercourse by age 15, 50 percent by age 18, and 71 percent by age 20. Older women are slightly more likely to have had their first sexual encounter at an earlier age.

Men usually have an earlier sexual debut than women, a pattern that holds true for most age groups. For example, 22 percent of men age 20-49 had first sexual intercourse by age 15, 56 percent by age 18, and 76 percent by age 20. The median age at first sexual intercourse among men age 20-49 (17.4 years) is also slightly lower than that among women (18.0 years) KDHS 2014

Kenya has a large adolescent population aged between 10 – 19 years of age with 23.4% being male while 22% are female.

Though the first debut may be coerced, there is increasing evidence of consensual sex at an early age due to various factors and especially the “perception of self” as will be discussed in much more detail in this write-up


Self-perception is defined as “The idea you have about the kind of person you are”. The perception of self-restraining capacity is significantly correlated with age. The older a person is, the stronger their perceived self-restraining capability is.

Nevertheless, given the early age at sex-debut, female adolescents are under threat from male sexual advances, often taking the form of abduction and rape.

This article aims to explore the role of self-esteem, dating identity exploration, Demographic variables, motivation and sensation seeking, permissive attitude towards sex, advances in physical maturity that may influence early sexual debut among adolescents.


In general, self-esteem is higher during childhood, decreases during adolescence and then gradually increases through adulthood. During adolescence, self-esteem can be affected by the physical and hormone changes. Self-esteem is also influenced by the social context and higher among adolescents with quality parental relationships and social support. Good relationships with peers and perceived popularity were positively correlated with self-esteem among female while school performance was positively correlated with self-esteem among male adolescents.

Self-esteem may be affected by a number of factors as discussed below which in turn influence early sexual debut among adolescents a. Parental support and Parental psychosocial control

Parenting has important implications for adolescents’ sexual and romantic relationships. A good number of studies have included family-related measures such as family structure, parental education, and family socioeconomic status.All these studies seem to suggest that family process variables, especially parenting, may be more relevant in pre¬dicting adolescent sexual outcomes.

Parental support includes any ongoing behavior carried out by a parental figure which contributes to the well-being and nurturing of the adoles¬cent. Parental support has a direct correlation to lower levels of adolescent problem behaviors, including risky sexual behavior. Supportive parenting deters adolescents from having sex at earlier ages and sexually inexperienced 10th-grade youth report more supportive relationships with their parents than their sexually experienced counterparts. A recent study found that more warmth in the family is associated with adoles¬cents having lower numbers of sexual partners. Supportive parents who have warm and open relationships with their adolescents can communicate their values about relationships and sexuality, which in turn results in the adolescent being less likely to take sexual risks. Parental support also has been linked with social initiative and higher levels of adolescent self-esteem.

Parental psychological control refers to manipulative or intimidating behaviors that attempt to control the adoles¬cent’s thoughts or beliefs. Parental psychological control can hinder social and psychological maturation by discouraging independent thinking or self-discovery, and/or by manipulating adolescent children in order to fulfill parental goals.

Psychologically controlling parents do not give adolescents the autonomy they strive for and can impede adolescent identity exploration. Parental psychological control has autonomy-stifling aspects that push adolescents away from close relation¬ships with parents, making them potentially more vulnerable to risky behav¬ior within their romantic relationships. Furthermore, parental psychological control has been found to be associated with sexual risk taking and also that parental psychological control was associated positively with engaging in sexual intercourse in a sample of African American youth from single-parent families.

In sum, parental support and psychological control can influence adoles¬cents’ decision making, including the choices adolescents, make about sexual behavior. Further, adolescents’ views of self can be influenced by the rela¬tionships they have with their parents and ado¬lescents’ self-development influences decision making including choices adolescents make about sexual behavior.

Many studies emphasize that adolescents whose sexual debut occurred by the age of 15 have reported worse relationships with their mothers than other adolescents.

b. Dating identity exploration

Dating identity exploration is consistent with self-esteem which implies that the more an adolescent engages in figuring out how she or he views the dating identity the more likely that adolescent will think seriously about the meaning of engaging in sexual activity with a partner. Thus, dating identity exploration may promote waiting until a rela¬tionship is more serious and getting to know a partner longer before engaging in sexual activity with that partner. Alternately, adolescents who delay engagement in sexual activity with a partner may have greater opportunities and/or flexibility to explore their dating identities. (Mruk C.J. 2013)

c. Esteem boosters for adolescents

i.Scholastic Competence: This refers to the child’s perceived cognitive competence, as applied to schoolwork. Thus, items make reference to doing well at school, being able to figure out the answers, finishing one’s schoolwork quickly, and feeling that one is intelligent.

ii. Social Competence: This is social acceptance emanating from social support. It may imply; knowing how to make friends, having the skills to get others to like oneself, knowing what to do to have others accept you, understanding what it takes to become popular, etc.

iii. Athletic Competence: Athletic competence items primarily refer to one’s ability to do well at sports, including outdoor games and demonstrating one’s athletic prowess.

iv. Physical Appearance. These items tap the extent to which one feels one is good looking, happy with one’s looks, body, face, hair, etc.

v. Job Competence. This refers to the extent to which an adolescent feels that (s)he has job skills, is ready to do well at tasks given, and feels that (s)he is doing well at the jobs that (s)he has.

vi. Romantic Appeal. This is a perception where the adolescents are romantically attractive to those in whom they are interested, they are dating the people they would like to be dating, and they feel that they are fun and interesting on a date.

vii. Behavioral Conduct. This subscale taps the degree to which one likes the way one behaves, does the right thing, acts the way one is supposed to act, and avoids getting into trouble.

viii. Close Friendship. This refers to one’s ability to make close friends, those with whom one can share personal thoughts and secrets.

ix. Global Self-Worth This is a general feeling or a sense of adequacy in specific areas of one’s life. Thus, there are no references to specific competencies or skills, or specific characteristics.


Age and Gender; the global mean for sex debut is 15.4 years (15.3 for girls and 15.5 for boys). Usually, 7.5% have had their sexual debut before the age of 14 (7.8% for girls and 7.2% for boys). The slightly lower debut age among girls could be explained by the fact that girls tend to have an earlier onset of puberty than boys and this correlates positively with an early sexual debut.

Family structure: This has a huge impact on sexual debut whether the family structure is a single parent, biological parents or adoptive parents

Living with both biological parents or at least alternating between them, seemed to be a protective factor for having an early sexual debut for both girls and boys. Adolescents from two-parent families are less likely to have sex and had fewer sexual partners. Findings from a Greek study showed that adolescents with an unstable home environment, due to divorce, a recent death, or not living with their mother, were more likely to be sexually active. Living with both parents seemed to be a protective factor, except for when the mother was very young, poorly educated, or if either of the parents had alcohol use disorder. There is a link between family stress or impaired families and both early sexual debut and risky sexual behavior. Parents who did not care or were overprotective seem to be a risk factor for an early sexual debut, especially for boys. With regard to parental education, there was no signi cant association with the early sexual debut.

Social class and Ethnicity / Race

Social class influences early sexual debut, and for girls, ethnicity has been found to influence early debut.

Social class may indicate variations in access to health protective resources which may include unequal access to sexual health protective resources, which may consequently lead to differences in life chances. Social class seems to be among the greatest risk-takers of an early debut for boys. Social class variations for girls particularly increased the risk for early debut among working-class girls.

Gendered power relationships may have different implications in different social relationships where young men tend to take their dominant role for granted.


Religiosity is shown to have a protective association for sexual activity and the number of partners.


Drug use: Girls and boys who smoke are more likely to have an early sexual debut. Boys who drank more than four times a month have a higher percentage of early sexual debut group. Adolescents with an early sexual debut were more likely to have tried different kinds of drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or amphetamine. Having used hashish/marijuana doubled the odds for early sexual debut among girls and increases the odds fourfold for boys. Having used anabolic steroids increased the risk of having had an early sexual debut among boys.

Together with the increased use of drugs, there is a connection between the early sexual debut and risky health behavior. Earlier Swedish studies showed that when a teenager had their sexual debut at 14 years old or younger there was already a risk of developing a hazardous lifestyle involving more use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs and being more involved in physical violence. Others studies have shown a correlation between the early sexual debut and a higher risk of early development of substance use disorder. Antisocial behavior and early sexual debut were linked to each other and could be explained by a common trait to test the limits of their behaviors.


Access to internet, technology and sex information may have a direct correlation with the early sexual debut. An early sexual debut is directly linked to exposure to pornography and sexual content in movies.

Sexting: Youth who sexted reported higher perceptions of approval for sexual behavior from parents, peers, and the media, higher intentions to engage in sexual behavior, lower emotional awareness, and lower emotional self-esteem.

Sexual text messaging behavior of any kind, with or without pictures, was associated with greater likelihood of engaging in a variety of sexual behaviors, including touching genitals, having a “friend with benefits,” oral sex, or vaginal sex. Teenagers who had sexted were between 4 and 7 times more likely to have engaged in these sexual behaviors. For example, teenagers who had sexted were 5 times as likely to have had vaginal sex, putting them at greater risk for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Consistent with previous literature, sexting was also associated with same-sex sexual behaviors (making out, touching genitals). In short, sexting appears to co-occur with sexual behaviors and may represent an indicator of sexual risk. Although any sexting appears to be a marker for sexual risk, sending photos is associated with the even greater likelihood of early sexual activity. Students who sent photos were more likely than text-only peers to engage in all of the behaviors above, with the exception of same-sex genital touching. Some demographic factors were associated with sending photos; photos were more likely to have been sent by female adolescents and Latinos. This may be related to the demographics of those who are requesting sexual photos; for example, boys may request pictures (of young women) more often; however, this study did not assess characteristics of sexting partners. Most risk-related cognition and emotional competence measures demonstrated differences between adolescents who engaged in sexting compared with their non-sexting peers (although not between those who sent texts only versus photos). Those who had sexted endorsed more intentions than their peers to have sex in the next 6 months, suggesting that targeted interventions with this group are warranted. Other differences suggest that adolescents who sexted had less awareness of their emotional state and perceived less self-efficacy for managing their emotions. These deficits may make it difficult for youth to react to others or may lead to impulsive actions driven by feelings (such as sexting). These characteristics may also lead adolescents to use sexting as a form of self-expression, instead of more emotionally challenging direct interactions. Findings also were consistent that those who sexted perceived more acceptance of sexual activity from their environment. These perceptions may normalize and reduce inhibitions related to sex, including sexting. Alternatively, teenagers who sext may selectively attend to attitudes that condone these behaviors. Longitudinal research will be needed to clarify these relationships, but these constructs may provide direction for interventions with at-risk youth and their families, who should be encouraged to monitor sexting like other sexual behaviors

Age mixing: There is also evidence of age mixing with evidence showing that 2% to 6% of female adolescents aged 15-19 years old had a partner aged 10 years older than them. Mixing adolescents with older individuals who may have had sexual experiences may make them more likely to be inducted into sexual behavior quite early.

Peer influence:

Peer socio-demographic attributes, such as age, gender, or in-school status could influence the behavior of adolescents perhaps by influencing perceived norms about their behaviors, or they might affect whom an adolescent comes into contact with, potentially acting as social network bridges to influential people or situations.

Perceived peer behaviors (descriptive norms) could provide models of behavior to be emulated

Peer approval (injunctive norms) might cause adolescents to adapt their behavior in a process similar to that involved with descriptive norms, but injunctive norms might or might not differ from the behaviors that adolescents perceive their friends to actually be engaged in.

Peer communication could play a role in diffusing information, perceived peer behaviors or norms, or provide a context in which adolescents could question or re-negotiate dominant norms.

Peer connectedness, or social and emotional support. This is sometimes measured as a count of relationships, a scale of their quality or a score to indicate the degree to which an adolescent’s peers are connected to each other might influence behavior. We include self-esteem in the domain of peer relationships to be in this category.

Status and position within the network of peer relationships could determine an adolescent’s exposure to information, resources, and behaviors that might influence their behavior. Additionally, given the normative pressures on behavior, network position might reflect popularity and status amongst peers with respect to age/ gender /residence. Another study found that participants had 1.7 times the odds of reporting ever having had sex if they thought they would lose friends if they did not have sex compared to those who disagreed with this statement, (Kakoko, 2013), with ever having had sex.

Early puberty; early onset of puberty might be linked to early sexual debut, unprotected sex, early introduction to alcohol and being drunk. In addition, it could be linked to more aggressive behavior in boys and to more time off school and being bullied by girls. Girls tend to have an earlier onset of puberty, as well as an earlier sexual debut than boys.


Teenagers who may have a kind of antisocial behavior like having been away for one night without their parents knowing, having been in a fight or hurt someone, having hurt animals, having been violent with a teacher and having threatened or bullied someone are more likely to have an early sexual debut than the adolescents with an older sexual debut and it was much more common for boys to be physically violent towards both people and animals. The girls in the early debut group had experienced significantly more sexual abuse than the girls with a later debut and the odds of an early sexual debut increased if the girl had been sexually abused. Most girls engaging in early sexual debut state that they had sold sex – that is they had displayed their genitals, been photographed or filmed, had masturbated for someone, had oral sex, vaginal or anal intercourse or had been photographed or filmed in sexual situations for payment. This was more common in boys and girls in the early debut group and having sold sex increased the odds of having had an early sexual debut. Experiences of different kinds of physical abuse among boys were significantly more common in the early debut group. Among boys, the experience of having been pushed or shaken, having something thrown at them, being hit with an object or a hand, being kicked, burnt or scalded all significantly increased the odds of an early sexual debut compared to boys who had not experienced these types of physical abuse. The results were similar among the girls: the experience of having been pushed or shaken, been hit with a hand, been kicked and hit or bitten were all associated with increased odds of having had an early sexual debut.

Experience of sexual abuse, especially among girls, and physical abuse, especially among boys, and sexual exploitation were more prevalent in the group of young people with an early sexual debut.

Association between depressed moods and sexual risk behavior is previously documented internationally and is supported by the present findings. Several studies also show an association between depressed moods and social class in youth.

In summary, psychosocial factors seem to play a somewhat greater independent role for boys than do the structural factors, while the opposite holds true for girls. This indicates that girls, on the one hand, experience less reconfirmation and positive validation on their self-development than do boys. This gender difference accentuated the difference by social class in self-perception and depressed moods. This gives girls an added disadvantage, having to oppose more stringent social class power structures, and gendered power structures, as they enter the arena of sexual relationships. The fact that a larger proportion of boys than girls are willing to risk early debut may not be an indication of higher acceptability of various risks. It may also be an indication that boys, to a greater extent across parental socioeconomic backgrounds, are vulnerable to possibly compensate emotional stressors or lacks in family function by seeking peer acceptance9 and alternative access to intimacy.

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Perceptions of self leading to early sexual debut among adolescents. (2018, April 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from
“Perceptions of self leading to early sexual debut among adolescents.” GradesFixer, 13 Apr. 2018,
Perceptions of self leading to early sexual debut among adolescents. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 May 2022].
Perceptions of self leading to early sexual debut among adolescents [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Apr 13 [cited 2022 May 27]. Available from:
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