Macro-level age norms for the timing of sexual initiation and adolescents' early sexual initiation in 17 European countries

Aubrey Spriggs Madkour, Margaretha de Looze, Ping Ma, Carolyn Tucker Halpern, Tilda Farhat, Tom F. M. ter Bogt, Virginie Ehlinger, Saoirse Nic Gabhainn, Candace Currie, Emmanuelle Godeau

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Purpose: To examine the relationship between country-level age norms for sexual initiation timing and early sexual initiation (ESI) among adolescent boys and girls.Methods: Nationally representative data from 17 countries that participated in the 2006/2007 European Social Survey (ESS-3, n = 33,092) and the 2005/2006 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Study (HBSC, n = 27,702) were analyzed. Age norms were measured as the average country-level response to an item asking the age at which ESS respondents believed someone is too young to have sexual intercourse. HBSC respondents (aged 14–16 years) self-reported age at sexual initiation, which we defined as early (<15 years) or not early (=15 years or no initiation). Control variables included age, family affluence, perceived socioeconomic status, family living arrangement, substance use, school attachment, and country-level legal age of consent. Multivariable three-level logistic models with random intercepts were run separately by sex.Results: In multivariable analyses, higher overall age norms were associated with reduced likelihood of ESI among girls (AOR .60, 95% CI .45–.79); associations with ESI were stronger for parent cohort (ages 31–65 years) norms (AOR .37, 95% CI .23–.58) than for peer cohort (ages 15–20 years) norms (AOR .60, 95% CI .49–.74). For boys, overall norms were also significantly negatively associated with ESI (AOR .68, 95% CI .46–.99), as were parent cohort norms (AOR .66, 95% CI .45–.96). Peer cohort norms were not significantly related to boys' ESI.Conclusion: Macrolevel cultural norms may impact adolescents' sexual initiation timing. Research exploring the sexual health outcomes of early initiators in countries with contrasting age norms is warranted.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)114-121
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Adolescent Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2014



  • adolescent
  • adolescent Behavior
  • adult
  • age distribution
  • aged
  • coitus
  • cross-Cultural comparison
  • cross-Sectional Studies
  • educational Status
  • Europe
  • multi-level modelling

Cite this

Madkour, A. S., de Looze, M., Ma, P., Halpern, C. T., Farhat, T., Bogt, T. F. M. T., Ehlinger, V., Nic Gabhainn, S., Currie, C., & Godeau, E. (2014). Macro-level age norms for the timing of sexual initiation and adolescents' early sexual initiation in 17 European countries. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(1), 114-121.