Investigation of sexual behavior in the adolescent years has a dual significance. First, adolescence is a period of experimental activity and potentially high-risk behavior in its own right (Gagnon et al., 1989). But second, and more pertinent to this paper, it is also a crucial point of transition to adulthood (Gagnon, 1989) in the sense that adolescence is a time of major physiological, psychological, and social change when many patterns of behavior are established, including future sexual practices and outcomes and a range of health-related and risk-taking behaviors (Donovan, Jessor, & Costa, 1993). The focus of this paper is on this second dimension, namely adolescence as a time for significant socio-sexual development with important consequences for subsequent sexual lifestyles. This has implications for future risk behavior and related health profiles.
There is a considerable body of research on sexual activity in the teenage years, principally orientated either to studies attuned to particular social problems associated with this age group, such as unintended pregnancy (Jones et al., 1985) and premarital behavior (Reiss, 1967), or to investigations addressing sexual activity in a more generic fashion. This research focuses both on the concurrent behavior of teenagers (Khan, Kalsbeck, & Hofferth, 1988) and on the retrospectively recalled activities of representative samples of adults (Johnson, Wadsworth, Wellings, & Field, 1994; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). There have also been a diversity of sampling frames and subpopulations used in past studies in this area, including high school pupils (Klanger, Tyden, & Ruusuvaara, 1993), university students (Bishop & Lipsitz, 1991), clinic populations (Evans, McCormack, Bond, & MacRae, 1991), regional samples (Dickson, Paul, & Herbison, 1993), and nationally representative surveys (Forrest & Singh, 1990).
A number of trends are evident from this literature. First, there is a well-established progression in the sequencing of early sexual and partnering activity among adolescents, starting with incipient relationships and associated kissing, cuddling, and minor petting and moving on to longer-term relationships, heavy petting, and sexual intercourse. (Brook, Balka, Abemathy, & Hamburg, 1994). Second, there are clear socio-demographic patterns of sexual initiation, with socially disadvantaged groups tending to begin their sexual career earlier (Gagnon, 1989; West, Wight, & Macintyre, 1993). Third, a number of changes in patterns of behavior over time have taken place, with a progressively earlier age at first intercourse and a convergence in these patterns between males and females (Johnson, Wadsworth, Wellings, & Field, 1994). Finally, there is evidence that early initiation may be a potential marker for later risky sexual behavior (Greenberg, Magder, & Aral, 1992).
The object of the current paper is to advance this literature in two respects. First, while trends in first intercourse have been well documented in most major national surveys, other aspects of early socio-sexual development have not been so firmly established. In this paper trends in pre-intercourse sexual experiences and first long-term sexual partnership will be analysed, and their relationship to first intercourse described. Second, the context and possible consequences of such trends in early socio-sexual development have not been extensively explored.
The focus in this study, therefore, is on trends in the initiation of young people into sexual and partnering activity and on the behavioral consequences of these trends. It relies on the retrospective recall of such events in a national sample of adults. Furthermore, while it does not explicitly adopt a social problem perspective, it does explore the implications of early sexual events for subsequent potential risk behavior and associated health profiles. …