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Adolescent Sexuality (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Sexual Intercourse

Sexual intercourse is the behavior used most often to report on the status of adolescents’ sexual behavior. It is only one behavior along the sexual continuum, but because of the potential long-term consequences of intercourse it is the most often-reported index. The latest figures show that more than one-half of high school seniors (61.1%) have had sexual intercourse at least once, an approximately 5% decrease since 1991 (CDC, 2003d). These data vary according to gender, race, and ethnicity. Approximately 7.4% of young adolescents had sex prior to age 13 (a figure which is on the decline). This percentage is significantly different from the 19% reported by young Black adolescent males, who, as a whole, engage in intercourse at a much higher rate at a significantly younger age. Also, 28.8% of young African American males report intercourse with a greater number of partners (four or more) than Caucasian (10.8%), Hispanic (15.7%), or other (16.0%) males report (CDC, 2003).

Why do some adolescents initiate sexual intercourse earlier than others? Who delays their sexual debut, or first-time intercourse, and who abstains? These questions are of interest to parents, teachers, practitioners, and health care professionals who want to understand the individual and contextual variables that promote sexual debuts. The answer is determined by the complex interaction of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors that exert both direct and indirect pressure on the adolescent (Crockett, Raffaelli, & Moilanen, date). Variables such as early maturation,  substance use, having a history of sexual abuse, and having friends who view sexual behavior as acceptable are linked to the initiation of sexual intercourse. Having educational plans, good grades, high religiosity, family support, and parental supervision are linked to the delay of sexual intercourse (Kirby, 2001; Miller et al. 2001). It is unlikely, however, that any single variable can be identified as the sole cause of sexual behavior. Rather, these variables are most likely to aggregate into a profile that is predictive of sexual debut or delay.

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Orientations

The incidence rates discussed above assumed heterosexual behavior. What is not known is how many same-sex experiences were included in the data. In fact, very little is known about the sexual experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Recent research has helped shape our understanding of how sexual orientation and sexual identity provide a context of development for adolescents (D’Augelli & Patterson, 2001; Savin-Williams, 2001).

Now we will focus on same-sex sexual orientation, defined as “a consistent pattern of sexual arousal toward persons of the same gender encompassing fantasy, conscious attractions, emotional and romantic feelings, and sexual behaviors” (Remafedi, 1987, p. 331). Sexual identity is an “organized set of self-perceptions and attached feelings that an individual holds about self with regard to some social category” (Cass, 1984, p. 110). Although some scholars are concerned that this distinction is too simplistic, it clarifies some of the following survey results. For example, when the sexual orientation of 35,000 students in grades 7 through 12 was assessed, only a very small percentage of students defined themselves as lesbian/gay (1.1%) or bisexual (0.9%). However, 11% admitted to being “unsure” of their sexual orientation; this percentage was highest in the lower grades.

In the higher grades, adolescents reported more homosexual activity. The number who self-defined themselves as exclusively gay, lesbian, or bisexual increased from 1 to 3% by age 18, although a larger percentage reported same-sex attractions: 2% at age 12, and 6% at age 18, while 3% reported same-sex fantasies (Remafedi et al., 1992). Consistent with these findings, in a study carried out in Australia, a significant minority of adolescents, between 8 and 11%, did not define themselves as exclusively heterosexual (Hillier, Warr, & Haste, 1996).

Most of this research has been carried out in high schools and most likely has underrepresented sexual-minority youth because they do not always identify themselves. It has been suggested that researchers may be missing at least half if not three-quarters of youth with same-sex attractions (Savin-Williams, 2001).

It may also be the case that youth who self-identify early in adolescence as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are significantly different from those who self-identify in late adolescence or early adulthood. Taking into account the limitations of the methodology and sampling techniques, the following is a summary of research findings on sexual-minority youth:

  • Gay adolescents experience the same pubertal transitions as heterosexual adolescents at approximately the same time (Savin-Williams, 1994a).
  • Gay adolescents experience similar physiological arousal and seem to be aroused by the same tactile stimulations (Savin-Williams, 1995).
  • Studies show a range in the age of initiation of sexual behavior by bisexual and gay males, 12.5 to 16 years, and a higher number of sexual partners than heterosexual adolescents (median age = 8) at age 15 (Remafedi, 1994; Rotheram-Boris et al., 1992).
  • When heterosexual, bisexual, and gay males are recruited from similar settings, such as homeless shelters, the number of high-risk sexual acts is similar across groups (Rotheram-Borus et al., 1999).
  • Sexual-minority youth are more likely to engage in heterosexual sex than heterosexual teens (Meininger, Cohen, Neinstein, & Remafedi, 2002).

Some research shows that sexual-minority youth have higher incidences of homelessness, substance abuse, eating disorders, isolation, runaway behaviors, domestic violence, risky sexual behaviors, depression, suicide attempts, and pregnancy (Garofalo & Katz, 2001). Although this profile suggests that bisexual, gay, and lesbian youth engage in more high-risk behavior than heterosexual youth, it is inappropriate and inaccurate to overgeneralize this negative trajectory to all sexual-minority youth (Savin-Williams, 2001). Recent longitudinal research shows that the incidence rates of substance abuse, progress at school, feelings of anxiety and depression, conduct problems, and delinquency match the rates of adolescent ethnic minorities and adolescent females, thereby making their experiences far more “normative” than thought previously (Rotheram-Borus & Langabeer, 2001). The focus of future research should be on the identification of moderator variables (e.g., supportive parents) that make some gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth more resilient and on comprehending the diverse developmental pathways within sexual minority groups.

Contraceptive Use

Adolescents’ understanding of contraception as well as their motivation to use it is determined not only by individual characteristics (e.g., gender, race, cognitive level) but also by how their friends, families, teachers, and society at large perceive its use and effectiveness (Lagana, 1999). Condoms and birth control pills are the two most commonly used methods of contraception. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (CDC, 2003) reports that 63% of adolescents said they used condoms during their last sexual intercourse, up from 46.2% who reported condom use in 1991. The reported use of condoms, however, is highest in the 9th and 10th grades (69%) and then drops to 57.4% in 12th grade. In addition, males report higher use (68.8%) than females (57.4%), and 81.2% of African American males reported condom use during their most recent sexual intercourse experience.

When asked about using birth control pills during last intercourse, 22.6% of all adolescents responded affirmatively. Such use increases from 9th to 12th grade, and females report higher use (27.2%) than males (17.5%). White American females report the highest use of birth control pills (26.5%), with African American females reporting the lowest use (11.7%). Other contraceptive methods used included injectable contraception (10%), withdrawal (4%), and implants (3%) (Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), 1998).

Although the use of contraceptives is increasing, many adolescents (37%) do not use any, use them inconsistently, or do not use them during first-time intercourse. An adolescent who does not use effective contraception consistently has a 90% chance of pregnancy within a year (AGI, 1998). Because unsafe sexual practices, such as not using a condom, may result in an unplanned pregnancy or a life-threatening sexually transmitted disease, researchers have tried to understand which adolescents are least likely to use contraceptives and why. Adolescents under 13 are less likely to use contraceptives or use them consistently (Kirby, 2001). Adolescent females are particularly vulnerable to the contraceptive preferences of a partner with whom they would like to stay emotionally connected (Tschann, Adler, Millstein, Gurvey, & Ellen, 2002). Adolescents who have a positive and warm relationship with their parents and are able to talk about sexual behavior and contraceptive use are more likely to use protection (Kirby, 2002a, 2002b).

Focus groups with Latina and African American youth ages 14 to 19 were conducted to try to understand their knowledge of and attitudes toward contraception. The most frequently mentioned barrier to consistent and effective use of contraception was misinformation provided by friends, relatives, and neighbors about current contraceptive practices (Aaron & Jenkins, 2002).

African American Participant 1:  This girl, she got Norplant in her arm. And some other girls told me it don’t work, but she got pregnant when she had hers.
Moderator:  Somebody got pregnant with Norplant?
African American Participant 1:  That’s what she told me.
African American Participant 2:  They say it’s not for everybody to get Norplant.
African American Participant 1:  Well, it won’t be for me.
Moderator:  And what do you think is the best [contraceptive] method?
Latina Participant 1:  None.
Moderator:  No method?
Latina Participant 1:  Maybe condoms or injections, and the pill.
Latina Participant 2:  But they say that condoms break sometimes.
Latina Participant 1:  Yes they break. (from Aarons & Jenkins, 2002, pp. 17–18)


The teens in this study conveyed a sense that no single contraceptive was infallible and might even cause side effects (e.g., cancer from implants). Therefore, using contraceptives was perceived as equally risky as not using them and pregnancy was perceived as somewhat inevitable. Other reasons for noncontraceptive use are

  • Unavailability (i.e., they were unprepared)
  • Being prepared (i.e., carrying a condom) might send the wrong message (e.g., slut versus good girl)
  • Too costly
  • Uncomfortable (i.e., condoms reduced sensation and feelings of pleasure)
  • No use of contraception is a sign of trust and fidelity in a sexual relationship
  • Teens feel ambivalent or positively predisposed towards pregnancy

Aspects of contraceptive education programs that successfully increase use include

  • Increased contraceptive availability and affordability
  • The building of psychosocial skills that teach proactive contraceptive practices and conversational strategies
  • The changing of the subculture so that contraceptive use becomes the norm rather than the exception

Contraceptive education programs are usually incorporated into sex education classes of school- or community-based pregnancy prevention programs. Several consistent findings among studies that evaluate components of contraceptive education are that making condoms more available to adolescents does not increase sexual activity but does increase the percentage of youth who report using condoms (Schuster, Bell, Berry, & Kanouse, 1998; Sellers, McGraw, & McKinlay, 1994). Another finding is that education/prevention programs are more effective with those adolescents who have not yet had intercourse. For some populations (e.g., Black urban youth), this means providing contraceptive information or making condoms available sooner (fifth or sixth grade) rather than later (Johnson, 2002).

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