The Role of Close Friends in African American Adolescents' Dating and Sexual Behavior

Article excerpt

During early and middle adolescence, youth become increasingly interested in forming dyadic romantic relationships, and by the age of 14 or 15 most adolescents have had some experience with dating (Connolly & Johnson, 1996; Furman, 1993; Sharabany, Gershoni, & Hofman, 1981). The formation of romantic relationships assists with healthy social development and provides a range of supportive functions that impact general adjustment and coping throughout adolescence (Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1993; Shulman & Kipnis, 2001; Zimmer-Gembeck, Siebenbruner, & Collins, 2001). Romantic and dating relationships are also often a prelude to sexual activity during adolescence (Miller & Moore, 1990). Since these phenomena occur in a social context that is heavily influenced by peers, it is important to examine the role of close friends in the dating and sexual behavior of adolescents. These same-gender social networks may provide an avenue for delivering and diffusing prevention messages about safer sex to adolescents. This paper addresses dating and sex among inner-city African American adolescents and explores the role of friendships in these early sexual experiences.

FRIENDS' INFLUENCE ON DATING AND SEX

Friendships are thought to play a significant role in determining the quality of heterosexual dating experiences because adolescents spend a significant amount of time with their peers and learn about opposite-gender social relationships by observing and imitating each other (Furman, Brown, & Feiring, 1999; Leaper & Anderson, 1997). Additionally, friendship networks create a context in which romantic relationships can develop; adolescents' involvement in these networks can influence the timing, emergence, and nature of their romantic relationships. The existence of a supportive and cohesive friendship network has been associated with increased frequency of dating, as close friends may serve a number of roles including providing access to potential dating partners through peer group activities, acquiring background information about potential partners, assisting in the initiation of conversations with prospective partners, and "setting up" the actual dating circumstances (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000; Davies & Windle, 2000; Paul & White, 1990). In addition, close friends also provide initial models for romantic relationship expectations, as well as information and advice regarding the initiation and maintenance of dating relationships.

Dating during adolescence often serves as an avenue for participation in sexual activity (Miller & Moore, 1990). Adolescents who date on a more consistent basis have access to potential sexual partners, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will have sex (Davies & Windle, 2000; Longmore, Manning, & Giordano. 2001). Frequent dating at an early age has been shown to be associated with earlier sexual experience (Dorius, Heaton, & Steffen. 1993: Miller et al., 1997). Therefore, to better understand the sexual experiences of adolescents and to design effective sexual health promotion programs, it is important to examine the role that dating plays in sex. In addition, because dating and friendships are often interrelated sociodevelopmental phenomena (Furman et al., 1999). it is important to understand the role thai close friends play in the dating process.

Christopher (2001) has developed two theoretical models for understanding individual and relational influences on sexual activity for early adolescents and older adolescents/young adults that integrate empirical literature on adolescent sexuality and are guided by a theoretical framework that combines elements of symbolic interactionism and role theory. These models assume that shared meaning and roles related to sexual behavior are created and negotiated through interactions with significant others such as peers, dating partners, and parents. In dating and sexual relationships, both partners enter the relationship with learned preconceptions about the ways in which one should or should not behave in the context of the relation ship, and then create their specific dyadic roles within these parameters. …