Homeless teens who were sexually abused as children may be motivated to have sex at an earlier age because they are seeking approval from their partners, finds a new study by Ryerson University researchers.

"For homeless teens, especially young women, being sexually abused as children may make these young people think sex is a way to make someone like them. As a result they are more likely to start having sex at an earlier age," said Professor Trevor Hart, director of Ryerson's HIV Prevention Lab and an associate professor of psychology.

He also noted that almost two-thirds of the homeless youth participating in the study had unprotected vaginal sex. "By engaging in risky sex, these youth are also potentially exposing themselves to HIV/AIDS along with a host of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)," Hart said.

The study was designed and conducted at Ryerson's HIV Prevention Lab by two doctoral students supervised by Hart: Ryerson PhD student Danielle Schwartz and Carolyn James, a PhD student from York University.

The researchers found that nearly 42 per cent of the teens reported they were sexually abused as children. Significantly more females (62 per cent) said they were abused compared to males (26.9 per cent). The youth who were sexually abused as children also cited more often coping and partner approval as motives for engaging in risky sex. In addition, they found that using sex to get approval was linked to the age of the teenagers' first sexual encounter. Childhood sexual abuse was also linked to homeless youth having intercourse for the first time at a younger age. These youth reported their first sexual encounter, on average, at age 14 two to three years younger than the general Canadian population.

Over a period of 10 months, the researchers recruited 179 homeless teens between the ages of 16 to 21 from five homeless shelters across the Greater Toronto Area. Slightly over half were male. Most of the participants identified themselves as heterosexual and had completed Grade 10. The youth answered a questionnaire about their sexual history, if they had experienced childhood sexual abuse, their sexual behaviour (i.e. frequency, number of partners, involvement in the sex trade) and their motivations for having sex.

The researchers will present their findings at the Ontario HIV Treatment Network research conference, which will be held on Nov. 15 and 16 in Toronto.

The study was funded by a CIHR Banting and Best Canada Graduate Scholarship awarded to James for her PhD work, and will be submitted to a journal for future publication. The HIV Prevention Lab at Ryerson University is also funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Source: Ryerson University