The Influence of a Conservative Religion on Premarital Sexual Behavior of University Students

By Helm, Herbert W., Jr.; McBride, Duane C. et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Influence of a Conservative Religion on Premarital Sexual Behavior of University Students


Helm, Herbert W., Jr., McBride, Duane C., Knox, David, Zusman, Marty, North American Journal of Psychology


"The fact remains that, until quite recently, scientific research on sexuality has been taboo and therefore to be avoided or at best marginalized" (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994, p. 36). Two early landmark studies looking at sexual behavior in the United States were Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Kinsey, 1953); together they are known as the Kinsey Reports. No major follow-up studies were done to the Kinsey Reports for over thirty-five years. It was not until the 1980's that additional sexual behavior studies began to appear and this was largely due to the role of sexual behavior in HIV transmission. By the 1990's two major studies appeared, the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), which provided information concerning the sexual behavior of adults in the United States, and the National College Health Risk Behavior Study (NCHRBS), which examined a wide range of risk behaviors among college students, including sexual behavior (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997; Laumann, et. al, 1994).

While sexual decisions may be based on personal choices, these choices are affected by a multitude of surrounding social influences. Religious conviction is one of these influences which play a major role in an individual's sexual behavior (Penhollow, Young, & Denny, 2005). For example, after a review of a large number of studies, Koenig, McCullough, and Larson (2001) concluded that religious practice and beliefs were associated with lower rates of premarital sexual activity and less permissive attitudes. This finding may also have cross-cultural implications. Schmitt (2002) found that across 52 cultures there was a positive correlation between self-reported religiosity and self-described sexual restraint for both males and females.

Pluhar, Frongillo, Stycos and Dempster-McCain's (1998) research supports previous findings that religiosity is an important factor in influencing the sexual attitudes and behavior of college students. Regardless of their religious affiliation, those who consider themselves more religious have more conservative views of premarital sexual intercourse and are less likely to have experienced sexual intercourse. However, unlike a number of previous studies, they have found that religious affiliation is significantly related to whether or not the student had engaged in sexual intercourse.

Two studies which evaluated young people's sexual behavior over given time periods (one from 1974-1985, the other from 1943-1999) concluded that there have been rises in their sexual activity (Spees, 1987; Wells & Twenge, 2005), as well as their willingness to discuss sexual issues (Spees, 1987). However, for many risk behaviors there is a tendency for individuals to perceive a greater extent of that risk behavior than actually occurs (Felt, McBride, & Helm, 2008; Perkins, 2002). For example, Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne, and Holch (2005) found that within the previous year over 80% of their college subjects reported from 0 to 1 sexual partner, while they believed that only 22% of their peers had limited themselves to the same number. The issue of perception is especially important, if the concept of social norms intervention is correct.

The theory of social norms suggests that group norms, or the reference groups of an individual, become a powerful agent in the choices that individuals make concerning their behavior, in that these behaviors become framed by those norms (Perkins, 2002). Most researchers who have tested social norms intervention have done it with alcohol use, leaving open the question of whether it works with sexual behaviors (Matthew, Page, Mowry, Damann, Taylor, & Cimini, 2006). The question is important because if perception of the social norm leads to actual sexual behavior it could result in an increase of high risk sexual behavior and an increase in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. …

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