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Adolescent Males Seek Intimacy and Close Relationships with the Opposite Sex

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July 15, 2014 -- Teenage boys desire intimacy and sex in the context of a meaningful relationship and value trust in their partnerships, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The research provides a snapshot of the development of masculine values in adolescence, an area that has been understudied. Findings are online in the American Journal of Men’s Health.

The researchers studied 33 males who ranged from 14 to 16 years of age to learn more about how their romantic and sexual relationships developed, progressed, and ended. The participants were recruited during routine medical visits at a community adolescent clinic that serves low-income, predominately African-American adolescents. The group’s sexual history began earlier than the national average, putting them at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

Participants were asked open-ended questions about relationships and sex, such as desirable partner characteristics, intimacy, closeness, and trust.

“Prevailing values in our culture suggest adolescent males want sex, not relationships. However, values and behaviors related to sex and relationships are likely more complex than typically portrayed,” said first author David Bell, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health and assistant professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center. “In fact, very few of the participants described sex as the main goal of opposite-sex interactions and relationships.”

The study advances an understanding of adolescent males’ early relationships in two significant ways. First, close relationships were important to the participants. Second, they desired intimate and caring relationships, expressed vulnerability and dependence, and placed great importance on trust in relationships.

Few participants described trying to trick or talk a partner into having sex, and few evidenced pride and boastfulness about numbers of sexual conquests. An area of vulnerability expressed by the males was the lack of knowledge about sex and concerns about their own capacity to sexually perform.

These findings starkly contrast with descriptions of older, sexually experienced adolescent males, according to Dr. Bell, in which older adolescents consistently endorse the belief that relationships should be focused around sex, an avoidance of intimacy, and the treatment of females as sex objects.

“Our sample was primarily lower-income African-American adolescent males and the results, while not  generalizable, are transferrable to similar populations of adolescent males,” noted Dr. Bell, who is also medical director of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s Family Planning Clinic/Young Men’s Clinic, a provider of primary care services to adolescent and young men. Next steps in the research include analyses of how early adolescent masculine beliefs evolve over time toward more predominant masculine beliefs. These findings can assist clinicians to better address young men’s sexual health needs and incorporate an understanding of adolescents’ developing masculinity into health promotion.

The study was supported by NIH grants U10 A131494-15 and 1 K23 HD 049444-01A2. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

About Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & healthand public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master’s and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including ICAP (formerly the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs) and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit www.mailman.columbia.edu