Sexuality and Quality of Life among Young People

By McCabe, Marita P.; Cummins, Robert A. | Adolescence, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Sexuality and Quality of Life among Young People


McCabe, Marita P., Cummins, Robert A., Adolescence


Data over the last thirty years clearly indicate that during the late 1960s, the 1970s, and up until the early 1980s there was a significant increase in the sexual experiences of adolescents and young adults, particularly females (Darling & Davidson, 1986; Kallen & Stephenson, 1982; McCabe & Collins, 1979; Murstein & Holden, 1979). This increase was accompanied by a liberalization of attitudes regarding premarital sexual experience. The dating code adopted by both sexes was one of acceptance of sexual activity within a caring relationship (Reiss, 1967). Sex was seen as part of the expression of love and intimacy (Storm & Storm, 1984).

There is evidence that this trend has continued into the 1990s. In a study comparing adolescent sexuality in 1970 and 1990, Schmidt, Klusmann, Zeitzschel, and Lange (1994) found that, although sexual experience has decreased in recent years, both adolescent males and females in 1990 were more likely to link love and sex than they did in 1970. This was especially true for males. Schmidt et al. also found that both males and females in 1990 were more committed to a sexually exclusive relationship than were adolescents in 1970, that they were more likely to be faithful to one another, and that they saw this relationship as being important to their lives. Good sexual experiences were found to be part of satisfying relationships, which in turn enhanced the overall quality of life.

These changes in attitudes toward sexual experience also placed pressure on both males and females to become sexually experienced. Sex was now seen as a natural part of a developing relationship, and not an experience that occurred later. Ellis (1990) has claimed that, due to peer pressure, unrealistic expectations may be placed on individuals and their partners in terms of sexual performance, which may, in turn, cause anxiety among sexually inexperienced adolescents and detract from their overall satisfaction with life.

Research has indicated that adolescents are becoming more conservative in their sexual attitudes and behavior (Roche, 1986; Roche & Ramsbey, 1993; Zani, 1991). Roche (1986) found that males and females who had experienced a relationship in which they dated one person only, and were in love, reported a lower incidence of sexual intercourse than that reported in the 1970s. The acceptability of sexual intercourse was even lower. It is highly unlikely that this shift in sexual attitudes and behaviors has been due solely to publicity regarding AIDS and STDs (Schmidt et al., 1994). If concern about AIDS and STDs was the cause for the more conservative attitudes toward sexuality, one would expect a higher use of condoms among sexually active adolescents. In fact, Gringer, Marks, Allen, and Armstrong (1993) found that, in a high-risk group of adolescents and young adults, only one third used condoms consistently during intercourse. Further, they found that knowledge of how to prevent STDs was not associated with condom use. A more likely explanation of these changes is that adolescents have modified their attitudes toward sexuality. Sex is now less likely to be used as a "quick fix"; that is, adolescents and young adults today are less likely to use sex to fill emotional gaps in their lives (White & DeBlassie, 1992).

The relationship between sexuality and quality of life during adolescence and early adulthood is not clear. Research suggests that early sexual experiences are not always rewarding, especially for females (Finkel & Finkel, 1983; Kallen & Stephenson, 1982). Darling and Davidson (1986) reported that 67% of males but only 28% of females were psychologically satisfied with their first sexual experience. Darling and Davidson also evaluated psychological satisfaction with current sexual experiences and found little change (81% of males and 28% of females). Schmidt et al. (1994) found that fewer females in 1990 than in 1970 described petting and intercourse as "really satisfying sexually" or "fun. …

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