National Post

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Wednesday, September 22, 1999

Sex experts dispute condom maker's claims on virginity
Small canadian sampling: Teens having sex at 15 not backed up by other national surveys
Elena Cherney
National Post

Experts on adolescent sexuality are challenging a study by the world's leading condom manufacturer that found Canadian teenagers lose their virginity at an average age of 15.

Researchers commissioned by SSL International Plc., the UK-based manufacturer of Durex condoms, interviewed 4,200 teenagers and young adults between age 15 to 21 in 14 countries, and found that youth in Canada and the United States lose their virginity one year earlier than adolescents in other parts of the world. A Toronto public-relations firm, GCI Group, was hired to announce the findings of the "Global Sex Survey" to the Canadian media.

The Durex study also concluded that the age of first intercourse in Canada is decreasing at an alarming rate. Among the 21-year-old Canadian respondents, 16.7 was the average age for loss of virginity, while among the 16-year-olds in the study, 14.3 was the average -- "a staggering 2.4 year" drop.

But those results, based on 300 Canadian 15-to 21-year-olds, contrast sharply with several much larger Canadian studies, said Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph.

The National Population Health Study, which polled 4,447 Canadians between 15 to 19 years old, found that only 24% of girls and 18% of boys first had sexual intercourse by age 15. Even among the 15- to 19-year-old age group, 45% of females and 53% of males remained virgins.

Prof. Maticka-Tyndale and Professor William Fisher, of the University of Western Ontario's medical school, said at least four other studies have confirmed that only about half of Canadian teens are sexually active by age 17. Various Health Canada studies have shown the average age at which Canadian teens lose their virginity in the 1990s is between 16 and 19, a spokesman for the department said.

The discrepancy between the Canadian findings and those in the Durex study raise questions about the condom manufacturer's motives for doing the study, said Gary Stronach, president of the Quebec Federation of School Committees, which represents parent committees at elementary and high schools across the province.

"It's very self-serving," said Mr. Stronach. "Some parents will look at the study and say, 'Oh my God.' The natural progression would be, now that we've seen children are having sex, we should take measures to make sure they're having safer sex -- we should buy them condoms."

Mr. Stronach said the Durex research flies in the face of a trend he and other parents have noticed in their children toward putting off sexual intercourse. "From what I'm seeing, there seems to be a little bit of a withdrawal," said Mr. Stronach, who lives in the Montreal area. "Today you hear kids standing up and saying, 'I'm a virgin and I'm saving myself.' "

Mr. Stronach's anecdotal evidence dovetails with the latest findings by Canadian researchers. "If anything, the age is going up" for Canadian teens having intercourse for the first time, said Prof. Maticka-Tyndale. While the slowdown is not dramatic, every year, the average age at which Canadians are losing their virginity appears to be creeping up by a few months, she said.

While the National Population Health Study, the most recent large-scale study, is based on 1996 data, the results are still telling, said Prof. Maticka-Tyndale. Findings that the average age for first intercourse has gone up in Canada also tend to discredit the Durex study, she noted.

Prof. Fisher, who is trained as both a psychologist and an obstetrician-gynaecologist, said he has seen further evidence in conducting research for the National Study of Contraceptive Behaviour, which surveyed women between ages 15 to 44 in 1993, 1995 and again in 1998.

"There are certain truisms in this area," said Prof. Fisher. "Roughly half of Canadian teenagers become active by 17. Mathematically, that suggests the age of first intercourse is not 15 because half of 17-year-olds have not had intercourse."

Prof. Maticka-Tyndale also criticized the Durex study for its small sample size of 300 Canadian teenagers which, she pointed out, left researchers basing conclusions on 150 boys, 150 girls, or about 22 teens of each age between 15 and 22.

The small size of the sample, and its departure from accepted findings on teenage sex in Canada, did not deter the condom manufacturer from stating "Canada is home to some of the youngest sexually active people," a fact sheet accompanying the study states.

"Young adults in Canada are having first time sex almost a year earlier than the global average of 15.9 years old."

The condensed report was headlined "Canadian Youth are Some of the World's Most Sexually Active Young People."

SSL International is the world's leading condom manufacturer, with Durex condoms claiming 28% of the world condom market.

Copyright Southam Inc.