The Changing Impact of Religion on the Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior of Adolescent Women in the United States

By Brewster, Karin L.; Cooksey, Elizabeth C. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Changing Impact of Religion on the Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior of Adolescent Women in the United States

Brewster, Karin L., Cooksey, Elizabeth C., Guilkey, David K., Rindfuss, Ronald R., Journal of Marriage and Family

This study addresses the impact of religious affiliation on intercourse risk and contraceptive use among adolescent women during the 1980s when churchbased groups were increasingly involved in debates over reproductive and family issues. However, adolescent nonmarital intercourse and birth rates were rising, suggesting that religious organizations, even as their visibility increased, became less effective at transmitting their values. We pooled data from two national surveys conducted in 1982 and 1988 and found that affiliation has modest, but stable, effects among Black teens. Among Whites, the impact of a fundamentalist Protestant affiliation increased. White fundamentalists were less likely to be sexually active in 1988 than in 1982.

Key Words: adolescence, religion, sexual behavior.

In the past 15 years, issues related to adolescent sexual behavior-including condom distribution programs in the public schools, the appropriate scope of sex education courses, and abortionhave featured prominently in public discourse. Concern with these issues is rooted in well-known trends: the increasing proportion of adolescents who are sexually experienced, a falling age at first intercourse, and the rising rate of nonmarital births to young women. The nature of the debate and the framing of these trends in moral terms reflect the increasing political activism of church-based groups. Yet, although these groups have taken widely publicized stands on adolescent nonmarital sexual behavior, little is known about the influence of religious affiliation or practice on adolescent fertility and fertility-related outcomes. This article addresses these issues.

There are few studies of adolescent sexual activity or contraceptive use that do not include indicators of religious denomination or participation. Most studies find such measures have significant net effects on adolescent reproductive outcomes, including the likelihood of being sexually active, the timing of first intercourse, the frequency of intercourse, and contraceptive use (Cooksey, Rindfuss, & Guilkey, 1996; Forste & Heaton, 1988; Kahn, Rindfuss, & Guilkey, 1990; Studer & Thornton, 1987; Thornton & Camburn, 1989; Zelnik, Kantner, & Ford, 1981). However, much of this work has treated religion as a control variable, acknowledging its potential importance without addressing its effects in any detail (e.g., Brewster, Billy, & Grady, 1993; Forste & Heaton, 1988; Kahn et al., 1990; Zelnik et al., 1981). Moreover, the few studies specifically designed to address the implications of religion and religiosity for the reproductive behaviors of adolescents in the United States may have limited generalizability because they are based on more localized samples (Studer & Thornton, 1987; Thornton & Camburn, 1989) or convenience samples (King, Abernathy, Robinson, & Balswick, 1976; McCormack, Izzo, & Folcik, 1985; Notzer, Levran, Mashiach, & Soffer, 1984).

The study presented here aims to shed additional light on the relationship between religion and adolescent reproductive behavior. We employ data from Cycles III and IV of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), conducted in 1982 and 1988, respectively, to examine the effects of religious affiliation on the timing of first intercourse, contraceptive use at first intercourse, and current contraceptive use among never-married adolescent women. These data afford the opportunity to examine aspects of the relationship between religion and adolescent reproductive outcomes not addressed in previous work, including the influence of religion on adolescent women's risk of intercourse and their contraceptive decisions and how these effects might differ by race.


Despite the growing involvement of church-based advocacy groups in local and national politics, much of the recent sociological work on the role of religion in the lives of individuals in the U.

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The Changing Impact of Religion on the Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior of Adolescent Women in the United States


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