Urban African American Adolescent Parents: Their Perceptions of Sex, Love, Intimacy, Pregnancy, and Parenting

Article excerpt

One of the most serious problems in American society is adolescent pregnancy. In 1993, one million females under the age of 20 became pregnant; 43% are pregnant at least once by that age (Shapiro, 1993). Thus, many adolescents, who have barely left childhood themselves and are ill-prepared for adulthood, are already having children.

The present study investigated the perceptions of urban African American adolescents regarding sex, love, intimacy, pregnancy, and parenting. It was conducted at an alternative high school in Richmond, Virginia. In Richmond, of the 860 pregnancies attributed to adolescents in 1994, 736 (86%) were to African Americans (Virginia Department of Health, 1996).

The study population consisted of 22 adolescent mothers aged 12 to 17 and 6 adolescent fathers aged 17 to 18. They were asked about their perceptions of specific issues surrounding adolescent pregnancy and parenting. Their responses, which follow, provide a variety of insights. Additional data indicate that the average age at menarche may have declined significant]y, as well as offer strong support for the position that poverty plays a major role in the incidence of adolescent pregnancy.

Mothers

Most of the mothers felt that they should have waited longer before becoming sexually active. This was not surprising, as half of the mothers had experienced sexual intercourse before they were 14 years old. Their wanting to delay first intercourse was largely due to the fact that most of them were no longer with their first sexual partner.

In general, the mothers believed that sexual intercourse was acceptable for adolescents, and they continued to engage in intercourse even while pregnant. In fact, three of the mothers implied that pregnancy increased their desire for sex. Further, many felt that once a person started having sexual intercourse, that person needed to continue having sex.

In addition, most of the mothers reasoned that it was safe to engage in unprotected sex once pregnant, especially since it was with the baby's father. Since the majority of the adolescent mothers were not utilizing contraceptives when they became pregnant, this reasoning is paradoxical and is evidence that, although many are capable of concrete thinking, few have achieved the level of formal operations. Therefore, it appeared that sexual intercourse for the mothers was something they were going to engage in, and neither the threat of disease nor that of pregnancy was an adequate deterrent.

Fathers

The fathers' perceptions and experiences were different from those of the mothers. Half of the fathers had experienced sexual intercourse before they turned 11, with the youngest having been 6 years old. The majority said they would not have delayed their first sexual intercourse.

Over half of the fathers claimed to have had more than twenty sexual partners. This is indicative of males' propensity to be more sexually active than are females and to have sex in the absence of a committed relationship. Unlike the mothers, two-thirds of the fathers had used contraception the last time they had sex. This may point to the fathers' being more aware of the consequences of unprotected sex.

Discussion

The majority of the fathers and mothers did not perceive their becoming parents as intentional, even though most admitted that they did not practice birth control at the time of conception. This incongruity is in keeping with Brookman's (1991) contention that adolescents' "it can't happen to me" attitude is a major reason for the failure to prevent pregnancy (or a sexually transmitted disease), and is a more important factor than the need to obtain, give, or retain affection. Thus, young adolescents are biologically capable of coitus and pregnancy, but have not reached a level of cognitive and emotional development that would enable them to develop genuine intimacy, understand the complex, interpersonal aspects of mature sexual relationships, and properly practice birth and disease control (Pestrak & Martin, 1985). …