Adolescent Sexuality: Disentangling the Effects of Family Structure and Family Context

By Davis, Erin Calhoun; Friel, Lisa V. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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Adolescent Sexuality: Disentangling the Effects of Family Structure and Family Context

Davis, Erin Calhoun, Friel, Lisa V., Journal of Marriage and Family

Growing up in single-parent, step-, cohabiting, or lesbian families has been suggested to have negative effects on adolescent sexual behavior. However, our analysis reveals that, with the exception of girls in single-parent families, family structure does not significantly influence adolescents' sexual initiation. Rather, the family context-more specifically the mother-child relationship, their level of interaction, and the mother's attitudes toward and discussion of sex-is associated with adolescent sexual debut. When looking at sexually active teenagers, neither family structure nor family context have an impact on the sexual partnerships of boys, and they explain little in terms of girl's sexual partnering.

Key Words: adolescent sexuality, family structure, lesbian families, parent-child relations, sexual behavior.

"Human sexuality is inherently related to many of the social and public health concerns and challenges in the United States today" (di Mauro, 1995, chapter 1). This is particularly true of adolescent sexuality. The potential risks surrounding adolescent sexual activity include early unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Among Western industrialized countries, the United States has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, and within the United States, teenagers have the highest rates of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia (Miller, Forehand, & Kotchick, 1999). Further, teenage sexual activity has become more common. The age of sexual debut has steadily declined, the number of sexual partners before age 18 has been increasing, and only one in five people remain virgins at the end of their teenage years (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). The environment in which adolescents negotiate sexual exploration is important, because "adolescence is the crucial time in which individuals establish lifestyles and behavioral patterns that have profound effects on adult health" (di Mauro, 1995, chapter 2). The rise in adolescent sexual activity, coupled with concerns about the personal and social costs of sexual behavior, has encouraged attempts to understand adolescent sexuality. Family is considered a main conduit of socialization, including sexual socialization. Further, public debate has centered on the potential impact of new family forms and of the decline of the "traditional" intact two-parent family on a number of areas, including teenage sexual behavior. We believe that the proliferation of new and diverse family forms warrants further study into the effects of the family environment on adolescent sexuality.

Research on the relationship between family structure and adolescent sexual behavior has typically considered only the differences between intact and maritally disrupted families (Lauritsen, 1994; Meschke & Silbereisen, 1997; White & DeBlassie, 1992). Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, this study seeks to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the role of familial environment in sexual timing and sexual partnership. In our analysis, we are interested in determining how a variety of family structures, including cohabiting and lesbian families, and family context, specifically maternal involvement as well as maternal sexual attitudes, are related to adolescent sexual behavior.


Family Structure

The effect of the family environment on adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors has been widely documented (Miller, Forehand, & Kotchick, 1999; Miller & Bingham, 1989; Thorton & Camburn, 1987; Young, Jensen, Olsen, & Cundick, 1991). Those studying family environment have typically focused their research in two key areas: the effect of family configuration and the effect of family involvement. The first of these, family structure, has primarily been measured according to whether the adolescent is in an intact two-parent family or not. (The designation of intact twoparent family typically implies that the parental figures are both married and the biological parents of the adolescent.

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