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Age of first sexual intercourse steadily declines over 50 years
Irish Times 17/10/2006
Eithne Donnellan

The average age at which Irish people first have sex has steadily declined over the last half century, new research confirms.

The study of almost 7,500 people across the State, published yesterday, found the median age at which our under-25 population had their first sexual encounter was 17 years.

It also found that 21 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women had sex before they were 17 years of age.

The Health Irish Study of Sexual and Relationships examined sexual behaviour in the 18 to 64 year age group and established that the proportion of people experiencing sex for the first time before age 17 has increased across age groups from 11 per cent of men and 2 per cent of women currently aged 60 to 64 years to 31 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 years.

“The decreasing age of first intercourse among both men and women in Ireland raises the issue of whether a substantial and increasing proportion of young people may be having sexual intercourse below the legal age of consent,” the report says.

Those with lower levels of education were more likely to have their first sexual encounter before 17 years of age.

Overall the study says the age at which Irish men first have sex has dropped by five years and the age at which Irish women first have sex has dropped by six years over the past four decades.

Dr Richard Layte, one of the report's authors, said there had been studies done in the past among small subgroups of young people which showed very early age of first sex.

“And people for a long while seemed to accept that it was around 15 or 15½. That just isn't true. A minority of young people would be having sex before 16, and the proportions only get up above 50 per cent at 17 years. So really the big period in which people begin having sex is over 16 and 17 to 18 years. So I think the assumptions in the past have been quite wrong about there being a widespread early sexual behaviour amongst young people in Ireland,” he said.

“Before I think most people assumed that it was more than 50 per cent having sex before 17 and they're not. In fact the large proportion of young people that have sex before 17 are between 16 and 17.”

Meanwhile the report says 67 per cent of men and 74 per cent of women reported using contraception at first intercourse. Use of contraception at first intercourse has increased over time, the report says, which is largely attributed to its bility and to sex grammes.

However, among those who did not use contraception at time of first sex, the research found 60 per cent of men and women under the age of 30 cited lack of planning, forethought or understanding of risks as the main reasons why they did not use it. Alcohol or drug use was cited as a reason for not using contraception at time of first sex by about 3 per cent of respondents overall – but by about 12 per cent of those under the age of 30.

Those who had their first sex at an earlier age were more likely to express regret for not having waited longer.