Religiosity and Sexual Risk Behavior among Croatian College Students, 1998-2008

By Stulhofer, Aleksandar; Soh, Damir et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview
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Religiosity and Sexual Risk Behavior among Croatian College Students, 1998-2008


Stulhofer, Aleksandar, Soh, Damir, Jelaska, Nika, Bacak, Valerio, Landripet, Ivan, The Journal of Sex Research


Adolescents and young adults are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because they are more likely to have unprotected sex and to have multiple partners, as well as high-risk partners (Panchaud, Singh, Feivelson, & Darroch, 2000). A meta-analysis of 121 empirical studies concerning heterosexual condom use (Sheeran, Abraham, & Orbell, 1999) reported that, although condom use has increased since the early 1980s, the absolute levels of use remained low. Studies dealing with sexual risk-taking among adolescents and young adults in Croatia reported a similar trend: The level of condom use did rise in the last 15 years (Hirsl-Hecej & Stulhofer, 2001; Stulhofer, Ajdukovic, Bozicevic, & Kufrin, 2006), but a majority of young adults (80%) did not use condoms consistently. This trend is in part reflected in the fact that HIV and AIDS, the most severe of all STIs, remains overwhelmingly present among young people, with 45% of new HIV infections worldwide being diagnosed among persons aged 15 to 24 (Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, 2008).

Religiosity is an important factor in assessing young people's vulnerability to HIV and other STIs. As eloquently stated in a recently published book on the subject, religion always makes a difference in the context of young people's sexuality (Regnerus, 2007). Its influence is also often gender-specific, with sexuality of young women being seemingly more susceptible to religious norms than that of their male counterparts

(Meier, 2003; Rizzi, 2004; Rostosky, Wilcox, Corner Wright, & Randall, 2004). Religiosity not only affects values and attitudes toward sex, but also both sexual decision-making and sexual behavior (Brewster, Cooksey, Guilkey, & Rindfuss, 1998; Rostosky et al., 2004). This is hardly a surprise considering that human sexuality has great religious relevance, which is cross-culturally reflected in religious regulation of, or attempts at regulating, school-based sex education, condom use and distribution, and gay and lesbian rights (Irvine, 2002). This point is particularly relevant bearing in mind the official teaching on sexuality of the global Catholic Church since, in the latest census in Croatia carried out in 2001, 88% of the population reported being Roman Catholic. It has promoted married life as an exclusive location of sexual activity while it has strongly condemned usage of contraceptives (Pope Benedict XVI, 2008, 2009; Pope John Paul II, 1984; Pope Paul IV, 1968).

Conceptually, the association between religiosity and sexuality can be approached at different levels (Bearman & Bruckner, 1999). More precisely, one or more causal mechanisms underlying this association may be related to (a) a personal dimension, which consists of specific individual beliefs; (b) a family dimension, where certain values are socialized and/or imposed through social control (comparatively, religious parents talk less with their children about sexuality, but more about sexual morality; Regnerus, 2007); and (c) a peer dimension, which is both an arena for building and maintaining one's personal reputation and a social space thick with mutual expectation, influence, and conformity. For example, peers are often the crucial factor in the selection of sources of information about sexuality. These three levels are often interconnected, as in the case of teenagers who were brought up religiously and, as a consequence, have internalized specific moral norms characteristic of their religion. Such beliefs will, directly (by their choice) and indirectly (by others' choice), guide them in choosing their friends, which will--assuming they were successful in becoming a part of a group of like-minded peers--reinforce their beliefs (Mott, Fondell, Hu, Kowaleski-Jones, & Menaghan, 1996).

In this article, religiosity is defined differently than is customary in sociological studies in which it usually denotes formal religious participation (as opposed to faith).

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