CONTEXT: Research suggesting that female teenagers who date substantially older males are at increased risk for negative health outcomes supports the need for statutory rape laws. However, prior research has generally ignored the social context of adolescence when examining the risks associated with dating an older partner.
METHODS: Data from Waves 1 (1995) and 2 (1996) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health were used to model the occurrence of sexual intercourse within adolescent heterosexual romantic relationships. Logistic regression analyses were used to examine the predictors of sexual intercourse among 4,266 romantically involved female students aged 12–18.
RESULTS: Female students with male partners three or more years their senior had higher odds of engaging in sexual intercourse than female students with partners closer to their age (odds ratio, 1.5). However, the association between having an older partner and the risk of sexual intercourse was nonsignificant for females older than 16. Moreover, when male partners’ school status was taken into account, the relationship was no longer significant. Female students with partners who had exited school had elevated odds of having had intercourse compared with females who dated partners in the same school (1.8).
CONCLUSIONS: These findings challenge statutory rape laws’ focus on age, given that the association between educational context and sexual risk overrides the association between partner age and sexual risk.