Pathways to Early Coital Debut for Adolescent Girls: A Recursive Partitioning Analysis

Article excerpt

Despite continued efforts to educate the public, troubling trends are emerging in the rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies among young people in the United States. In 2006, it was estimated that about one million adolescents and young adults in the United States were living with chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2009). Adolescent girls and young adult women are particularly vulnerable to contracting certain types of STIs. An estimated 24.5% of adolescent girls 15 to 19 years old and 44.8% of those in the 20 to 24 age group are believed to be infected with the human papillomavirus (CDC, 2009). Further, chlamydia rates are almost three times as high among women than men, and women are more likely than men to contract gonorrhea (CDC, 2007). Furthermore, girls and women bear the primary burden of unwanted pregnancies stemming from unprotected sex. Early coital debut has been shown to be a risk factor for having multiple sexual partners (World Health Organization, 2006) and HIV infection (Drain, Smith, Hughes, Halperin, & Holmes, 2004). In addition, early onset of sexual intercourse in girls is associated with more problematic behavior, such as minor deviance (Bingham & Crockett, 1996), failure to attain a high school diploma and post-secondary education (Frisco, 2008), and may also be associated with complications in sexual health in adulthood (Magnusson & Trost, 2006). Thus, it is important to identify pathways of adolescent girls' transition to first intercourse.

Predictors of Early Coital Debut

Researchers have demonstrated a number of a priori hypothesized factors that relate to the timing of adolescent girls' first sexual intercourse experience. In this study, we complement this previous research by exploring a broad set of potential predictors of coital debut, including demographic variables, school-related variables, religiosity, mental health, experiences and comfort with physical intimacy, and femininity ideology constructs. In previous research, these variables have been examined piecemeal, such that only a few hypothesized variables were examined in any particular study. In contrast, this study builds on that prior work in order to examine all of these variables simultaneously by taking advantage of an exploratory statistical technique called recursive partitioning (RP; Zhang & Singer, 1999). RP offers a unique perspective to research on sexuality because it enables researchers to examine a large number of potential predictors of coital debut while simultaneously identifying which factors are the strongest predictors.


In terms of demographic variables, existing research that has examined racial and ethnic differences in coital debut has revealed mixed findings. With regard to differences according to race and ethnicity, several studies indicate that African American girls are at the highest risk of early coital debut (Carvazos-Rehg et al., 2010; Feldman, Turner, & Araujo, 1999; Regan, Durvasula, Howell, Ureno, & Rea, 2004). However, other research indicates no significant differences between White, Black, and Asian girls living in an urban city (Upchurch, Aneshensel, Sucoff, & Levy-Storms, 1999), as well as no differences among White, Black, and Latina low-income adolescent girls (Jordahl & Lohman, 2009). Studies also indicate that Latina girls have intercourse experiences later than African American girls (Feldman et al., 1999; Regan et al., 2004) and White girls (Upchurch et al., 1999). Therefore, extant research on the influence of race and ethnicity on coital debut has not produced a clear set of findings.

In contrast to the effects of race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status has consistently predicted coital debut in adolescent samples. In a large Norwegian study, maternal and paternal education, as well as family income, significantly predicted early sexual debut among 15- to 16-year-old adolescent girls, such that girls with lower parental education were more likely to experience coital debut by age 15 or 16, as compared to girls with higher parental education (Valle, Roysamb, Sundby, & Klepp, 2009). …