Twenty Years of Student Sexual Behavior: Subcultural Adaptations to a Changing Health Environment

By Netting, Nancy S.; Burnett, Matthew L. | Adolescence, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Twenty Years of Student Sexual Behavior: Subcultural Adaptations to a Changing Health Environment

Netting, Nancy S., Burnett, Matthew L., Adolescence

This article continues a study of sexual behavior initiated over twenty years ago at a British Columbia college. In 1980, students lived within a sexual "plural society," with individuals choosing among three sexual subcultures: celibacy, monogamy, and free experimentation. Over the next decade these groups persisted, although the proportion of females who were virgins fell dramatically, and sexually active students shifted from casual liaisons toward committed partnerships. By 1990, despite the onset of AIDS, only a minority of students were using condoms, and their monogamous relationships were not particularly long-lasting. At that time, there were doubts that youths would adopt safer sex practices, as freedom of sexual expression was an important part of becoming an adult (Netting, 1992).

New data were collected in 2000. We sought to determine whether there had been any change, not only in sexual behavior, but also in the major criteria by which youths make sexual decisions. As identified by Brooks-Gunn and Furstenberg (1989, 1990), these criteria include the process of sexual negotiations, the perception of danger, and the meaning of sexual behavior. At least until 1990, the three subcultures provided their members with coherent sexual ideologies that helped guide them through these decision-making screens. It seemed logical that if students had found new ways to cope with threats to health, these coping strategies would be rooted in the same subcultures. Thus, we hypothesized that, in 2000, each subculture had not only survived, but had made its own adaptations to the changing health environment, adaptations that fit the subculture's overall ideology and lifestyle.

Changes in North America During the 1990s

By 1990 AIDS had spread to approximately 4,800 people in Canada and 117,000 in the United States. Ten years later the numbers had risen to 17,722 and 774,467, respectively (Health Canada, 2001b; Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2001). Expressed as the cumulative rate of infection in the population, Canada's rate was 63.42 per 100,000, compared to 307.05 for the U.S. (based on population figures from Statistics Canada, 2001, and the Social Science Data Analysis Network, 2001). In both countries, the number of new cases leveled off in 1993-94 and is presently declining. Experts remain pessimistic, however, warning that the decrease has slowed, and that some North American subgroups are experiencing dramatic increases in infection (Karon, Fleming, Steketee, & DeCock, 2001; Maticka-Tyndale, 2001). Young people in general are at risk, because their sexual lives are typically in flux, and are often characterized by high levels of experimentation. Since many adults currently living with HIV/AIDS were infected during adolescence and young adulthood, this time of life is critical for health-protection programs (Health Canada, 2001a).

During the 1990s, perhaps because HIV infection rates were rising and sex education programs expanding, youths in the United States reported less sexual experience than earlier cohorts, reversing three decades of steady increase. The proportion of U.S. male teenagers who had ever had sexual intercourse dropped from 60% in 1988 to 55% in 1995 (Murphy & Boggess, 1998), while the proportion of sexually experienced female teenagers stabilized at around 50% (Santelli, Lindberg, Abma, McNeely, & Resnick, 2000). In 2001, the proportion of sexually experienced U.S. high school students fell still lower, to 48% of males and 43% of females (CDC, 2002). (Henceforth, this type of statistic will be written as 48/43%, indicating the percentage of males, then of females.) In Canada, levels of sexual experience for 17-year-old males between 1980 and 2000 were unchanged (slightly over 50%). Different sources agree that, in the late 1980s, about 45% of 17-year-old Canadian females had experienced

sexual intercourse, but estimates for the 1990s, according to various surveys, range from 22% to 54% (Maticka-Tyndale, 1997; Maticka-Tyndale, Barrett, & McKay, 2000).

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Twenty Years of Student Sexual Behavior: Subcultural Adaptations to a Changing Health Environment


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