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The rate of Israeli high school students having sexual intercourse has risen steadily over the past few years, especially among female students, a new study published in the official journal of the Internatioanl Academy of Sex Research suggests.

This is the most extensive survey of Israeli teens' sexual behavior since the 1970s. According to the survey, over a third of 12th-grade girls and half the boys in the 12th grade engage in full sexual relations, in other words, a 1.5:1 ratio. In the 1970s, the ratio was 3:1.

"The double standard about sex has grown smaller," explains Dr Ronny Shtarkshall, director of the clinical training program for sex therapists at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health. "If in the past a boy having sex would have been considered a macho and a girl a whore, that's beginning to disappear."

A leading Israeli sexologist, Dr Shtarkshall is one of four co-authors of the research paper, along with his colleagues Dena Jaffe-Hirschfeld, Prof Sara Carmel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Anna Woloski-Wruble of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's nursing school.

The survey was conducted among 4,600 young people in 170 high schools across the country. Questionnaires were filled by the students in the presence of the researchers rather than their teachers, to avoid embarrassment influencing the findings.

The research team points out that Israeli teenagers would still be considered nearly puritan by modern Western standards. In the UK, 63% of boys and 64% of girls under 18 say they have had sexual intercourse. In the US, 75% of boys and 63% of girls reportedly do the same.

The most significant new finding of the research is the behavior of teenage girls. Despite the fact that in earlier stages of their sexual development boys are much more active than girls, the girls catch up very quickly in the later stages. The gap remains, however, in other aspects, such as relationships. More boys reported having more than one sexual partner than did girls.

A difference was also noticeable in the reasons given for having sex. Girls mostly quoted interpersonal reasons, like the desire to express closeness, to enter a certain phase of a relationship, or their male partner's wishes. Boys referred to more personal reasons, like curiosity and interest in the experience. Both boys and girls thought all their peers were doing it to acquire social status, or by wanting to be like everybody else.

The study confirms that sexual relationships are not isolated, but occur in a wider social context. This was affirmed by a correlation between students' estimation of the number of their peers engaged in sexual activity and the actual data, in other words, a case of kiss-and-tell.

Another aspect examined in the research is whether religious beliefs had any influence on sexual behavior. The researchers were surprised to find that religious boys were more sexually active than secular ones, at 45% as compared to 40%. The findings among girls were reversed: 30% of religious girls compared with 40% of secular girls, showing the double standards retained among religious teenagers.

Another surprising finding was that the gaps in pornography consumption between boys and girls became smaller. Some 90% of boys said they had been exposed to pornographic content, as opposed to 60% of the girls. Also, more than a third of boys and 20% of girls watch pornographic content on their own. Dr Shtarkshall says this means teenagers today "look for information in the wrong places."

The research suggests that the issue cannot be ignored by schools and has to be addressed in the education process.