Intercourse Debut Age: Poor Resources, Problem Behavior, or Romantic Appeal? A Population-Based Longitudinal Study
Pedersen, Willy, Samuelsen, Sven Ove, Wichstrom, Lars, The Journal of Sex Research
THE NORDIC CONTEXT
Norway is one of the so-called "Nordic welfare states," with low rates of poverty and a high level of gender equality. These countries are rather secularized with little religious involvement, and they are regarded as sexually liberal. Abortion rates are in the mid to high range among Western European countries (about 20/1,000 in the age range of 15-19), and there are few teenage births (Norwegian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2003). Females have, since the mid-1960s, reported earlier intercourse debut than males: a pattern typical for the Nordic countries, in contrast to findings from many other areas (Kraft, 1991). Recent findings indicate that this development has accelerated during the last decade, with a considerable decrease in median intercourse debut age among females, a pattern less clear in males (Pedersen & Samuelsen, 2003). Previously, intercourse among Norwegian youth has been documented to be preceded by a typical sequence of noncoital interactions ("French kissing," "light petting," "heavy petting"; Jakobsen, 1997). Oral sex was recently documented to be introduced at approximately the same time as intercourse, indicating a change in the typical sexual script in ordinary adolescents (Pedersen & Samuelsen, 2003). Thus, intercourse debut is interwoven in a web of various sexual experiences, with a typical sequence, and it is of course not appropriate to define first intercourse as sexual debut, in the strict sense of the concept.
THE RESEARCH TRADITION: UNSOLVED PROBLEMS
Despite the above statement, the first intercourse represents an important event in adolescents' development. Previous research suggests this event is influenced by a mixture of social, psychological, and biological factors. Generally speaking, there have been two main approaches in this research area: The first considers how social control over teenage sex differs as a function of historical period, gender, social class, and religion. The second approach is more interested in how individual experiences and characteristics play a role in this picture (Joyner & Laumann, 2001). Based on more general lines of reasoning in recent social research, one would suggest the second group of factors to play an increasingly important role (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Giddens, 1992). In other words, we hypothesized teenage sexual behavior would be less influenced by membership in broad social groupings and more related to individual characteristics and biography.
Indeed, there are quite a few contributions in recent research using such a perspective. Thus, individual biography and characteristics are recognized as important in several recent studies. But a problem is still that intercourse debut often is one-sidedly conceptualized within a framework of poor resources and psychosocial problems, usually as a "problem behavior." In our opinion, there are other problems as well in contemporary research. Let us briefly review the most important.
1. Many studies still use use nonrepresentative samples (Mott, Fondell, Hu, Kowaleski-Jones, & Menaghan, 1996; Miller-Johnson et al., 1999), samples of girls only (Leitenberg & Saltzmann, 2000; Whitbeck, Conger, & Kao, 1993) or boys only (Feldmann, Rosenthal, Brown, & Canning, 1995), or samples with a low response rate (Costa, Jessor, Donovan, & Fortenberry, 1995). These restrictions make it difficult to generalize findings to a broader population, and such limits are often not given proper attention. Furthermore, too few studies have focussed on possible gender differences.
2. Many studies concentrate on only one or two domains of influence--such as demographic factors (Heaton & Jacobson, 1994) or biological factors (Rowe, Rodgers, & Meseck-Bushey, 1989)--and do not control for other domains of variables. Thus, possible confounding factors are often not taken into account, and the mechanisms behind certain types of development are often not properly modelled. …