Teen Sexuality Research Paper

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Since the 1950s, societal views of sexuality have changed dramatically, and with those changes, there has been an increased focus on teenage sexuality. Sexual activity among teenagers has increased while the age that teenagers begin sexually experimenting has decreased. Although the exact nature of the association is unclear, sexual intercourse at an early age has been consistently linked with greater psychological risks (e.g., problem behavior, substance use, poor school performance, and disrupted family and parental relationships). Unsafe sex practices and limited sexual and contraceptive knowledge place adolescents at high risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and early childbearing (Bingham and Crockett 1996).

1. Definition

‘Teenage sexuality,’ a difficult term to define, includes two complex themes: teenage and sexuality. By teenage, most researchers refer to the adolescent years or adolescence. Adolescence begins at puberty, with physiological and hormonal changes. While entrance is defined largely by biological markers, exit has become less clear. Within contemporary Western society, the legal age of 18 has been the traditional marker for the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood. With a changing economy and societal structure, for many, education extends beyond the age of 18 and traditional hallmarks of adulthood (e.g., financial independence, marriage, and childbearing) are postponed. Given that adolescence covers the ages of approximately 12 to 21 years, researchers often talk about early, middle, and late adolescence, each period with its own developmental characteristics.

Sexuality encompasses a wide array of domains including sexual behaviors, attitudes, and knowledge (Miller et al. 1986), sexual identity (see Miller and Simon 1980), sexual orientation (see Savin-Williams and Rodriguez 1993), contraception, and pregnancy (see Piccinino and Mosher 1998). Although the socialization of sexuality begins in infancy, when gender role expectations and identity are imparted, it is in adolescence—when biological factors interact with social expectations—that sexuality becomes a central issue of development. Within the context of other developmental goals, the adolescent is expected to become a ‘self-motivated sexual actor’ (Miller and Simon 1980). This research paper will focus on sexuality among heterosexual adolescents, including current statistics on behavior and attitudes, an overview of theoretical and historical perspectives, measurement issues, and directions for future research.

2. Current Statistics

Since the 1950s, we have seen a dramatic increase in the rates of sexual activity among teenagers in the USA. Teenagers of both sexes are having sexual intercourse at younger ages than ever before. By the age of 17, more than 50 percent of teenagers report having had sexual intercourse, and by age 19 that figure jumps to approximately 80 percent (Singh and Darroch 1999). Traditionally, boys begin having sexual intercourse earlier than girls, but that gap has decreased steadily in recent years (AGI 1994). Sexual intercourse before the age of 15 is still relatively rare with approximately 80 percent of teenagers reporting that they are sexually inexperienced at the age of 15. Sexual intercourse prior to the age of 13 is reported by adolescents as mostly nonvoluntary or unwanted (Singh and Darroch 1999).

Encouragingly, pregnancy rates among teenagers have declined 17 percent from 1990 to 1996. Contraceptive use at first intercourse increased during the 1980s from 48–65 percent with the use of condoms doubling. By 1995, 78 percent of sexually active teenagers reported using some form of contraception at first intercourse, with 66 percent of these adolescents using condoms. Overall, 90 percent of sexually active teenagers report using some form of contraception. Unfortunately, a large percentage of this group do not use contraceptive methods consistently or correctly (Piccinno and Mosher 1998). Despite an increase in contraceptive use, 25 percent of sexually active teenagers will still contract an STD during adolescence, and 19 percent of sexually active girls will get pregnant before the age of 19. Seventy-eight percent of teenage pregnancies are reportedly unplanned.

3. Theoretical And Historical Perspectives

No single theory has adequately explained adolescent sexuality. In their overview of several theoretical perspectives on adolescent heterosexual behavior, Miller and Fox (1987) focus on two major but conflicting paradigms on sexuality: sexuality as an emergent drive and sexuality as a socially learned behavior. The first paradigm, sexuality as emergent drive, encompasses biologically-based (e.g., Udry et al. 1985), psychologically-based theories (e.g., Jessor and Jessor 1977, Miller et al. 1986), and theories of social control (e.g., Hirschi 1969, Parsons 1951).

Biological influences help explain some of the social changes in adolescent sexual behavior (Dyk 1993). Since the mid-nineteenth century, the onset of puberty has dropped gradually in age for both boys and girls. For example, in the 1850s the average age of menarche was 17 years. By 1990s, the average age was 12 years (Dyk 1993). In support of biological theories, a growing body of research suggests that male hormones play an identifiable role in shaping the sexual behavior of adolescents, both boys and girls. For example, a measure of serum androgenic hormones, known as the ‘free testosterone index,’ was shown to be predictive of virginity status, sexual behavior, and noncoital sexual behaviors among adolescent virgins (e.g., hand holding, kissing) (see Udry et al. 1985).

The view of sexuality as an inner drive also encompasses psychologically-based theories. Early sexual behavior among adolescents has been portrayed as an attempt to satisfy a strong need for affiliation or intimacy (Miller et al. 1986), or a desire for excitement or novelty (Miller and Fox 1987). Although self-esteem and expectations for achievement have been touted as the best predictors of sexual behavior, results from longitudinal studies have yielded inconsistent and contradictory results (Jessor and Jessor 1977).

Social control theories have sought to explain why many adolescents do not act on their biological impulses and look to processes that serve as restraints. Parsons (1951) and Hirschi (1969) propose models of social constraint centering on the roles of parents. In Parsons’ model, parents ‘serve as policing agents of the social order’ (Miller and Fox 1987, p. 273). Parents deter the sexual behavior of their adolescents through rules, supervision, and surveillance. Hirschi’s (1969) model stresses the parent–child bond as the constraint mechanism. Because of the emotional bonds formed with parents, and consequent desire to please, adolescents conform to parental expectations.

In contrast to emergent drive-based theories, socialization paradigms (i.e., the process through which acceptable behaviors in a given society are taught and learned) posits that sexuality is socially shaped more than internally driven. Areas of inquiry include how society shapes the expression of sexual behavior, how certain sexual behaviors come to be viewed as appropriate or inappropriate, and how erotic meanings come to be attached to certain objects, persons, or behaviors. Because parents serve as models through which accepted behaviors and norms of a society are learned, parents are considered crucial socialization agents and their influence has been widely investigated. Communication, particularly discussions about sexual issues between mothers and their young adolescents, has a strong influence on the attitudes adolescents have about sexuality and sexual behaviors (Jessor and Jessor 1977, Treboux and Busch-Rossnagel 1995) During this age period, peers also serve as strong socialization agents. Adolescents often exert explicit pressure on each other to conform to a standard of behavior and look to their peers as a reference point or standard by which they can measure their own behavior. For example, adolescent girls are less likely to become sexually active if their best friends are virgins as well (Billy and Udry 1985). Research suggests that the relative influence of parents and peers may differ as a function of the age of the adolescent. For younger adolescents, parents appear to have a strong influence on sexual behaviors and attitudes, but this influence declines as teenagers approach later adolescence and peers become more influential (see Treboux and Busch-Rossnagel 1990, 1995).

In addition to proximal influences on behavior, contextual factors (e.g., religion, economy, and culture) shape views of teenage sexuality. Reiss’ (1967) sociological theory of premarital sexual permissiveness stresses that changes in individual sexual behavior mirror shifts in social views. Prior to the 1960s, intercourse outside of marriage for adults was widely disapproved, especially for women. In the 1990s there was a greater acceptance of premarital sexual activity among adults (see Downs and Hillje 1993 for an overview of historical perspectives on adolescent sexuality). Although social attitudes regarding adult sexual behavior and preadolescent behaviors are clear across Western subcultures, mixed attitudes regarding adolescent sexual behaviors prevail. Young people are biologically defined as sexually mature while simultaneously defined as socially and psychologically immature. Caught in a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, the task of integrating differing views from the larger society as well as peer subcultures may be quite confusing for adolescents (Graber et al. 1998).

Some researchers have integrated the two approaches, examining both innate and learned influences. Using a biosocial model, Smith (1989) argues that biological factors (i.e., onset of puberty, the variance in hormonal levels) play a clear role in adolescent sexual behavior, but these biological changes are mediated by social and cultural forces and expectations. Smith further suggests that these two influences may fluctuate, with one force becoming stronger than the other at different times. A late maturing girl may not have a strong biological influence to become sexually active at an early age, but within a social setting that accepts and encourages sexual promiscuity (e.g., a peer group of early maturing sexually active girls), she may be influenced to engage in sexual activity. Within a biosocial framework, both components are consistently interacting to affect sexual behavior and attitudes (Smith 1989). Although useful as a conceptual model, it has yet to be tested empirically.

4. Methodological Concerns

The nature of the population (i.e., minors) and the topic lead to inherent methodological problems, namely sample and self-report biases. As required of all minors, parental consent is mandatory and often difficult to obtain. Parents are often concerned that simply being asked questions of a sexual nature will encourage their young adolescents to become sexually active.

Even when parents consent, teenagers may be tempted to overstate behavior if they are embarrassed at their lack of sexual activity. In a longitudinal study, Alexander et al. (1993) examined the issue of consistency in reports along three dimensions: whether or not respondents had ever had sexual intercourse, the number of lifetime intercourse experiences, and the age of first intercourse. One year later, 90 percent of adolescents were consistent in their reports of virginity, and 85 percent were consistent in reporting the number of lifetime experiences. However, only 43 percent were consistent in reporting their age at first intercourse.

Designed to explore the causes of adolescent health behaviors, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Udry and Bearman 1998) uses technology to address such methodological problems. Adolescents, grades 7 through 12, enter their responses directly into a computer. Automatic skip patterns prevent students from viewing questions that they are not meant to answer. For example, if participants respond that they are not sexually active, they will not see questions regarding sexual partners, contraception, and so forth. This is an important feature for several reasons: (a) it helps assuage parental concerns that children will ‘get ideas’ from sex-related questions; (b) it prevents teenagers from lying to match their peer behavior; and (c) the absence of interviewers in the room and a hard copy at the end of the session promotes assurance of confidentiality of responses.

5. Directions For Future Research

To date, most psychological and sociological studies have taken an epidemiological approach toward adolescent sexuality. We know who is having sex, at what age, and with whom. We also know that there is an association between adolescent sexual activity and other psychosocial behaviors. However, we have yet to explore fully the meaning that sexuality holds for teenagers. Until recently, research on adolescent sexuality has not been embedded in a developmental framework. As Graber et al. (1998) stress, the adolescent life phase is a period of dramatic change and developmental challenges. Research that examines sexuality within the context of these other changes would provide more meaningful information.

Although researchers stress the importance of considering the influences of culture and religion, as well as integrating the influence of biology, there is sparse research exploring the roles of these influences and/or examining the contexts of community, school, peer group, family, friends, and romantic partnerships. New models and methods of research designed to take more developmental and holistic approaches to the study of adolescent sexuality are needed (e.g., Cairns et al. 1998).

The Add Health project (Udry and Bearman 1998) is currently attempting a longitudinal study using such an approach. The study is unique in its exploration of the roles various relationships—romantic sexual partners, nonromantic sexual partners, same sex as well as opposite sex relationships—are playing in the lives of teenagers. The longitudinal nature of the sample will allow us to examine the natural progression of these relationships.

Finally, because statistics point us to the middle and late years of adolescence as the age where sexual activity begins (Singh and Darroch 1999), most research naturally focuses on the sexual behavior and attitudes of adolescents over the age of 15. Bingham and Crockett (1996) found that psychological adjustment problems associated with early sexual activity are present prior to first intercourse, not as a result of early sexual intercourse. Thus, a greater understanding of the attitudes and behaviors forming in younger adolescents and middle school age children is of great import.


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