Gender Differences in Adolescent Sexual Attitudes: The Influence of Individual and Family Factors

Article excerpt

Research on adolescent sexuality often considers the long-term impact of teen pregnancy, noting that teenagers are ill prepared for parenting (Barret & Robinson, 1982; Cannon-Bonaventure & Kahn, 1979; De Lissovoy, 1973). For example, research indicates that adolescents who become pregnant often experience financial difficulties because they are likely to drop out of school, limiting their employment opportunities; the custodial parent is at particular risk (Furstenberg, Levine, & Brooks-Gunn, 1990). Teenagers who marry as a result of pregnancy are also at financial risk because both parents are likely to leave school (De Lissovoy, 1973; Furstenberg, Levine, & Brooks-Gunn, 1990). Adolescents who engage in unprotected coitus, in addition to possible pregnancy, risk being infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

Adolescent sexual attitudes and behavior are influenced by (1) biological and psychological factors within an individual, (2) proximal relationships in family and peer groups, and (3) sociocultural contexts, such as race, religion, school, and the media (Miller & Fox, 1987). Most of the research on adolescent sexuality has been fragmented and decontextualized, focusing exclusively on single variables (e.g., self-esteem, locus of control) or classes of variables (e.g., individual factors, family relationships). Miller and Fox (1987), noting that this research, in general, has been atheoretical, suggested integrating multiple classes of variables within theoretically developed models. Influenced by symbolic interactionism, this study, addressing an identified research need, examined individual and relationship factors that influence adolescent sexuality in order to integrate these two classes of explanatory variables.


Factors within the individual that are associated with sexual behavior include psychosocial characteristics (e.g., age at first intercourse, self-esteem), gender, and attitudes about sexuality. Adolescents are also influenced by their peers and family.

Individual Factors

Psychosocial influences. Early initiation is a predictor of sexual frequency. Age at first intercourse is positively related to expectation for independence, but negatively related to expectation for academic achievement; and positively associated with tolerance for deviance, but negatively associated with religiosity. Adolescents who begin to date earlier have more dates, which is positively associated with sexual experience, number of sexual partners, and level of sexual activity during later teens (Miller, McCoy, & Olson, 1986; Thornton, 1990). There is also a negative association between early initiation of sexual intercourse and contraception; 50% of premarital pregnancies in teens occur within six months of first intercourse, and 20% occur within the first month (Pugh, DeMaris, Giordano, & Groat, 1990; Zabin, Kantner, & Zelnik, 1979).

Self-esteem is another influence on adolescent sexual behavior, but is related through sexual attitudes. For example, self-esteem is positively related to sexual intercourse for adolescents who believe that intercourse is always right, but negatively related for those who believe it is wrong (Miller, Christensen, & Olson, 1987).

Gender differences. Adolescent males are much more likely than adolescent females to report that they have engaged in sexual intercourse (Herald, Valenzuala, & Morris, 1992; Newcomer & Udry, 1985). Additionally, adolescent males are less inclined to consider affection a precursor to sexual intimacy than are adolescent females (Whitbeck, Hoyt, Miller, & Kao, 1992), more likely to believe that sexual coercion is justifiable (Feltey, Ainslie, & Geib, 1991), and more likely to respond to antisocial peer pressure (Brown, Clasen, & Eicher, 1986). There is a positive correlation between expectations for sexual intercourse and length of relationship for adolescent males, but not for females (Collins, Kennedy, & Francis, 1976; Knox & Wilson, 1981). …