Perception of peers’ sexual activity (peer norms)

Export Indicator

The percentage of young people who perceive their friends to have had sex.
What it measures

This indicator measures the extent to which young people believe that their friends are sexually active. It seems obvious that peer attitudes and norms are an important influence on the behaviours of young people. Yet it is important to track attitudes and norms among young people because studies conducted both in developed and developing countries have demonstrated that, when adolescents believe their friends to be engaging in sex, they are more likely to report having had sex themselves


The number of respondents aged 10-24 years who perceive their friends to have had sex


The number of respondents aged 10-24 years

Method of measurement

In a general population survey, respondents are asked: “About how many of your friends do you think have had sex?” The possible response categories are read out by the interviewer and the respondent is asked to choose one of the following options.
1. None.
2. A few.
3. About half.
4. Most.
5. All.
The possible answers can be presented as percentages (adding up to 100%). This is particularly insightful if the percentages are calculated separately for major subgroups of interest (males and females, age groups 10-14, 15-19, 20-24), as differences in perceptions among different groups can thus be uncovered. Alternatively, each answer can be given a score (increasing with the proportion believed to be sexually active; e.g., from 0 to 4). The sum of the scores for all the respondents can be divided by the number of respondents to obtain an average score. This average should also be calculated separately for males and females, as well as for the different age groups (10-14, 15–19, 20–24 and 10–24). Generally, as the perception increases that a large number of friends are sexually active, so does the likelihood of people reporting that they have had sex. This indicator should therefore be interpreted in conjunction with those measuring reported sexual activity.

Measurement frequency

Age group: 10 years - 14 years, 10 years - 24 years, 15 years - 19 years, 20 years - 24 years

Education: N/A

Gender: Male, Female

Geographic location: N/A

Pregnancy status: N/A

Sector: N/A

Target: N/A

Time period: N/A

Type of orphan: N/A

Vulnerability status: N/A

Explanation of the numerator
Explanation of the denominator
Strengths and weaknesses

This indicator is most insightful in respect of populations of young people who have not yet begun to have sex. Both theory and empirical research demonstrate a relationship between peer norms of sexual behaviour and actual sexual activity. Correspondingly, interventions such as peer education programmes often focus on changing norms. However, since most of the studies are cross-sectional which have analysed the influence on individuals’ behaviour of their perception of their friends’ sexual behaviour, it is still not clear whether the relationship is causal. For example, it could be that adolescents mimic the actual or imagined behaviour of their peers, or it could be that once adolescents initiate sexual activity they are more likely to assume that their peers are also sexually active than would otherwise be the case. Nevertheless, this indicator provides an important insight into young people’s beliefs on the prevalence of sexual activity among their peers. This is important because young people often overestimate the proportion of their peers having sex. In this case, peer norms act as a risk factor, possibly contributing to early sexual activity. However, peer norms can also have a positive effect: adolescents who believed that their peers were using condoms were more likely to use condoms themselves.

Further information