Demographic differences in adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors, parent communication about sex, and school sex education.

Author:Tobey, Jacquelyn


Many studies have focused on the correlates of adolescent sexual behavior in order to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence the initiation of sexual behaviors. For instance, Jerman and Constantine (2010) found that demographic variables in combination with parental comfort with sexual communication as well as the knowledge parents held about sexual health issues strongly predicted the number of topics discussed between parent and child. As parents continue to be the primary source of knowledge about healthy sexual behaviors for their adolescents (Moore, Raymond, Mittelstaedt, & Tanner, 2002), the need remains to study the multiple variables related to sexual risk taking behaviors, especially since significant disparities in the amount of correct sexual knowledge held by parents were found (Gallegos, Villarruel, & Gomez, 2007). Also, the timing of sexual communication seems to matter considerably, with more favorable outcomes for teenagers and their families when such communication has happened before the onset of first sexual activity (Clawson & Reese-Weber, 2003).

Age and, related to this, maturity levels of adolescents seemed to be one of the most important demographic variables influencing sexual risk taking behaviors. When middle school students from a large sample were examined, those students who were involved with an older romantic partner, and those girls who experienced early onset of menarche (before 7 th grade), were significantly more likely to have had sex than were younger or less mature students (Marin, Kirby, Hudes, Coyle, & Gomez, 2006). Similarly, Santelli et al. (2000) and Somers and Paulson (2000) found that older adolescents reported more frequent sexual behaviors and more sexual knowledge than did younger adolescents. In fact, according to Somers and Paulson (2000), "research continually produces findings that age is the primary correlate of sexual behavior" (p.640), including onset of sexual intercourse, frequency of sexual behavior, and use of contraception. There is a need to expand this literature to include more races/ethnicities as well as contexts of potential influence. Thus, the current study utilized an ecological perspective (e.g., Brofenbrenner, 1977), in which the most proximal contexts of family/parents and school, were examined within a diverse sample of adolescents.

Differences by Gender

Research also supports gender differences in adolescent sexual behavior, whereby heterosexual males engage more frequently in sexual behaviors such as petting and intercourse, and have done so more recently than heterosexual females (DeGaston, Weed, & Jensen, 1996; Somers & Paulson, 2000). In a study of adolescent risk-taking behaviors in single-parent ethnic minority families, Kotchick, Dorsey, Miller, and Forehand (1999) found that adolescent males were more likely to engage in inconsistent condom use and also report a higher number of serial, short-term monogamous relationships than females.

DeGaston et al. (1996), as well as Zimmer-Gembeck and Helfand (2008), found that males, in addition to being more sexually active, also hold more permissive sexual attitudes than females. Specifically, they found that females are more committed to abstinence and less likely to approve of premarital sex than are males. O'Donnell et al. (2005) also found that females were significantly more likely to see premarital sex in a negative manner than did males. Recent research has rarely addressed specific age and racial/ethnic differences in terms of adolescent sexual attitudes by gender.

Research has continually shown a gender difference in parent-adolescent communication about sex. Females are more likely to discuss sex-related issues with parents and to have done so more recently than males did (Raffaelli, Bogenschneider, & Flood, 1998; Hutchinson, 2002). At the same time, parents are more likely to talk to their daughters than to their sons (Rosenthal & Feldman, 1999; Byers, Sears, &Weaver, 2008). Interestingly, however, adolescents themselves have reported that their parents discuss sexual topics very infrequently, even when discussion topics are related to reducing risky behaviors (Jaccard, Dittus, & Gordon, 2000). However, former studies did not differentiate between other demographic factors or between differences in the amount of paternal or maternal sources of information even though those differences may be significant. Kotchick et al. (1999), for example, found that mothers and daughters discussed more sex-related content areas and had better communication than did mothers and sons. In a study of perceptions of parent-adolescent closeness and communication about sexuality, Somers and Paulson (2000) found that females reported higher levels of maternal closeness, maternal communication, and sexual knowledge than did males. Additionally, Markham et al. (2003) found that the quality of mother daughter relationship was negatively related to amount of sexual risk-taking behaviors. Heisler (2005) also reported that females are more knowledgeable about sexual issues (i.e., anatomy, physiology, contraception) and tend to receive more sexual health related care throughout adulthood than males (Kalmuss & Tatum, 2007). In summary, the gender differences in communication pattern between adolescents and their parents point to a direction in which mothers communicate the most with their daughters, both parents communicate generally more with their daughters rather than their sons, and therefore, sons receive the least amount of communication from either their mother or father.

Parental attitudes toward premarital and/or adolescent sex also differ by the gender of the teen that they are talking to. This is important because permissive parental values about premarital sex are related to earlier sexual activity for individuals of all genders (Kotchick et al., 1999, Regnerus, 2005). Mothers tend to communicate more conservative attitudes to their daughters rather than their sons, and females also perceive their mothers as such (Cosby & Miller, 2002). Also, significantly more females than males were found to talk with mothers about parental approval of teen sex specifically (Raffaelli et al., 1998).

Differences by Ethnicity

The literature shows that adolescents' sexual behaviors do vary by race/ethnicity, though the patterns are not as clear as they are for age and gender. For instance African-American minority adolescents engage in sexual intercourse at an earlier age and with greater frequency than do Caucasian adolescents, and they frequently have engaged with more partners than any other racial minority (Grunbaum et al., 2003). In another study, Hispanic adolescents were twice as likely to become a teen parent and thus can be assumed to have initiated risky sexual behaviors more frequently than other teens (Solorio et al, 2004). Furthermore, Hispanic adolescents' intentions to engage in high risk sexual behaviors rose when they came from an increasingly lower SES or engaged in other risky behaviors (Frank, Cerda, & Rendon, 2007). These differences seem to show some degree of consistency, but specific patterns of sexual communication between adolescents and parents in minority groups need more exploration.

In a study by Dittus et al. (1997) and Miller, Forehand, and Kotchick (1999), results revealed that maternal orientation about premarital sex was predictive of African American adolescents' sexual behavior, and...

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