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Gauging Sexual Risk

By Jackie Powder

Immersed in her research project comparing methods for interviewing adolescents on sensitive subjects, Jaya, MBBS, DrPH '06, MPH '01, didn't expect to uncover "alarming" data on sexual experiences among low-income youth in India.

First, there was the sheer volume of reported unwanted sexual advances: 42 percent of girls and 32 percent of boys said they had been touched in a sexual manner against their will.

Second, and most surprising to Jaya, boys were more likely than girls—15 percent versus 3 percent—to have been the victim of an attempted forced physical relationship. Moreover, most of the boys said that a female friend was the person who had tried to force them into having sex.

The data, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2007, turn a widely held assumption on its head—that girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than boys. Jaya, who received a dissertation grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health and now works with the Public Health Foundation of India, speculates that while the girl may think of her friendship with the opposite sex as a dating relationship, the boy treats it as a casual relationship and reported in the survey that the girl forced the sexual activity. She emphasizes, however, that the data require further exploration.

"This is a very transitional phase for India, particularly in urban settings," Jaya says. "I think young people are pushing the envelope now, but relationships are still very strictly circumscribed by social norms, and ultimately marriage is the destination." Physical relationships and even friendships between unmarried adolescents in India are still considered taboo.

The study also found that adolescents who work are more likely to be victims of nonconsens-ual sex, with boys more at risk than girls.

Jaya says that it's time to devote more attention to the new realities of the sexual landscape that Indian adolescents must navigate.