Why Abstinent Adolescents Report They Have Not Had Sex: Understanding Sexually Resilient Youth

By Blinn-Pike, Lynn | Family Relations, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Why Abstinent Adolescents Report They Have Not Had Sex: Understanding Sexually Resilient Youth


Blinn-Pike, Lynn, Family Relations


Why Abstinent Adolescents Report They Have Not Had Sex: Understanding Sexually Resilient Youth*

The sample in this study consisted of 697 students from 20 schools in Missouri who indicated on a survey of sexual attitudes and behaviors that they had not had sex. The subjects completed the 18-item Reasons for Abstinence Scale and identified those items that were reasons why they had not had sex. The most frequent reasons for not having sex were related to fears of pregnancy and disease (including HIV/AIDS). The least frequent reasons were related to problems concerning the cost and availability of birth control and protection. Principal components factor analysis revealed three factors that were labeled "fear-based postponement," "emotionality and confusion," and "conservative values." Factor scores differed by gender, grades, alcohol consumption, family structure, father's education, and urbanicity. The discussion centers on the need to design different prevention strategies to build protective factors that result in "sexual resilience" in target groups of adolescents.

Key Words: adolescents, resilience. sexual abstinence.

The debate over what messages to give adolescents about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS) and pregnancy has proven to be confusing to youth and has proven conflictual and polarizing in manv communities. The diverse messages that U.S. adolescents receive can be summarized as: (a) remain abstinent until marriage; (b) remain abstinent until emotionally and development;ally ready to become sexually active; (c) remain abstinent but, if not able to, have accurate information about birth control and protection; and (d) have accurate and factual information on how to use birth control and protection effectively because abstinence is not a realistic expectation. While many adults feel strongly about promoting one of the above positions with youth, it is not well understood how adolescents understand and incorporate these disparate admonitions into personal behavior patterns.

In the battle over the most appropriate approaches to reduce adolescent high risk sexual behaviors in the United States, more emphasis has been placed on understanding adolescents who report they have had sex than on understanding adolescents who report they have remained abstinent. For example, the Centers for Disease Control administered the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) to a national sample of more than 16,0(O high school students in 1997 and reported that 48% of the students had engaged in sexual intercourse. This figure was a significant decline from 54% in 1991 (MMWR, 1998) and generated great interest on the part of politicians, researchers and practitioners. However, there were little empirical data on which to explain this decline. Both supporters of conservative abstinence-only and more liberal comprehensive sex education programs claimed responsibility. No research was found that asked the adolescents who have not had sex why they have remained abstinent. Therefore, the present study used a protective factor model of resiliency to address why diverse groups of adolescents report they have not had sex and to examine how to support youth who make the decision to remain abstinent to become "sexually resilient."

Literature Review

While much research and discussion has occurred in the last decade about fostering both sexually abstinent youth and resilient youth, few researchers have attempted to merge the two areas to provide direction for adolescent HIV, sexually transmitted disease, and pregnancy prevention. Although none of them specifically examined abstinence, Brooks-Gunn and Paikoff (1993), Small and Luster (1994), and Perkins, Luster, and Villarruel ( 1998) were unique in applying the concept of resilience, originally developed in the field of developmental psychopathology, to understanding adolescent sexual well-being. Brooks-Gunn and Paikoff (1993) explored the roles of cultural (moral standards, gender, culture, and media), individual (biology and social cognition), and environmental (peers, family, and school) factors in understanding how to promote sexual well-being among adolescents.

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