Adolescent Sexual Behavior in Two Ethnic Minority Samples: The Role of Family Variables

Article excerpt

This study examined family structural variables (family income, parental education, and maternal marital status) and process variables (maternal monitoring, mother-adolescent general communication, mother-adolescent sexual communication, and maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior) as predictors of indices of adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior in 907 Black and Hispanic families from Montgomery, Alabama, New York City, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The findings indicated that familystructure variables failed to predict adolescent sexual behavior. In contrast, each of three familyprocess variables predicted multiple indices of adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior Neither adolescent gender nor ethnicity qualified the findings. Differences did emerge among the three locations and by reporter (adolescent or mother) of the family process variables.

Key Words: adolescents, family processes, sexual behavior

Adolescents are at risk for the negative health consequences associated with early and unsafe sexual activity. These consequences include infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., syphilis, chlamydia) and the occurrence of unintended pregnancy (Aggleton, 1995; Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1990; Kegeles, Adler, & Irwin, 1989). For example, national data reveal that 15- to 19-year-old adolescents have the highest rates of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia in the United States (Bowler, Sheon, D'Angelo, & Vermund, 1992; DHHS, 1990). Furthermore, the U. S. has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western industrialized countries (see Kirby et al., 1994), and the rates are rising among unmarried 14- to 16-year-old females (Bluestein & Starling, 1994).

Consistent data across a number of national surveys indicate that sexual activity among American adolescents has increased over the past two decades. According to data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, over one half of high school students have engaged in sexual intercourse before graduation. Estimates appear to be higher for males, minority adolescents, and adolescents of lower socioeconomic status (Kann et al., 1996; Leigh, Morrison, Trocki, & Temple, 1994; Seidman & Reider, 1994). For example, 81 % and 62% of Black and Hispanic males in high school and 67% and 53% of Black and Hispanic females in high school report having engaged in sexual intercourse. Comparable rates for Caucasian male and female students are both 49%.

Many sexually active adolescents engage in behaviors that are considered risky or unsafe and that may expose them to HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, or may result in unintended pregnancy. Of particular concern is the frequent finding that only a small proportion (i.e., approximately 10%-20%) of sexually active adolescents consistently use condoms (DiClemente et al., 1992; Kann et al., 1996; Seidman & Reider, 1994). The consistent use of condoms appears to be lower for minority adolescents than for Caucasian adolescents (Airhihenbuwa, DiClemente, Wingood, & Lowe, 1992; Brown, DiClemente, & Park, 1992). Furthermore, adolescents tend to engage in short sexual relationships that are serially monogamous and that increase their exposure to multiple sexual partners and, subsequently, increase their risk of contracting HIV infection and other negative consequences of sexual risk behavior (Overby & Kegeles, 1994).

Concern about HIV infection, as well as the prevalence of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents, has sparked a surge of research in the psychosocial context of sexual initiation and sexual risk-taking behavior (Bluestein & Starling, 1994; Gardner & Wilcox, 1993; Rosenberg, Biggar, & Goedert, 1994). One factor that consistently plays an important role in the sexual socialization of adolescents is the family context (Small & Luster, 1994). …