Academic journal article Social Work

Factors Associated with Early Sexual Activity among Urban Adolescents

Academic journal article Social Work

Factors Associated with Early Sexual Activity among Urban Adolescents

Article excerpt

Adolescent sexuality presents multiple challenges for social work, involving complex developmental processes as well as cultural, social, and family issues (Allen-Meares, 1995). Although Americans as a nation continue to be ambivalent about sexuality and how teenagers should express it, it is clear that sexual activity is "migrating down" to very young adolescents (Hahn, 1995), placing them at risk for contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and for becoming pregnant (Irwin & Shafer, 1992). The well-being of children born to young teenagers also is at stake (Hayes, 1987).

The potential for problem outcomes of early sexual activity is enhanced for teenagers of color because of the disproportionate economic and community stresses they face (Battle, 1987; Ladner, 1987). To shed further light on appropriate social work responses, this study uses lifespan and ecological frameworks to investigate the origins and effects of early sexual activity among urban adolescents.

Lifespan Perspective

The lifespan perspective emphasizes age-related dynamics in the life course, including, for example, the impact of particular life stages such as adolescence and important stage-related events such as the transition to sexual activity. Events that occur "off-time" can be associated with disruptions in normal developmental sequences, leading to potential difficulty in later development (Elder, 1985).

Sexual exploration is part of the normal lifecycle experience. Currently, by the end of high school, the majority of adolescents experience sexual intercourse (Irwin & Shafer, 1992; Kahn, Kalsbeek, & Hofferth, 1988). Sexual activity during adolescence may, however, be more or less out of phase and problematic depending on the age involved. Early adolescence, ages 11 to 15, is a critical period of the life course given the wide-ranging sexual, emotional, social, and cognitive changes that occur (Hahn, 1995; Simmons & Blyth, 1987). Teenagers of color face additional developmental challenges in this phase because they are developing their own cultural identity while confronting the culture and values of the majority and coping with its barriers and prejudices (Spencer & Dornbusch, 1990). In general, adolescents in this phase are less likely to display the developmental readiness to engage in sensible sexual decision making (Hamburg, 1986; Petersen & Crockett, 1992).

Although few studies have specifically explored sexual behavior in representative samples of young teenagers, available evidence does suggest worse consequences at earlier ages. Young teenagers are more likely to engage in sporadic and unplanned sexual activity (Chilman, 1986), are less likely to use contraception (Zabin, Hirsch, Smith, & Hardy, 1984), and are more likely to risk pregnancy and STDs (Sonenstein, Pleck, & Ku, 1989). Older adolescents generally are more sexually active, and earlier studies have shown that the majority of adolescents made the transition to intercourse after age 15 (Kahn et al., 1988; Miller & Moore, 1990). However, sexual activity at young ages is increasing (Hahn, 1995). Although rates of early sexual activity are increasing among all groups of teenagers, rates are higher among young urban African American and Hispanic teenagers (Fennelly, 1988; Forste & Heaton, 1988).

Ecological Perspective

The ecological perspective holds that people are active participants in nested and overlapping systems that influence developmental outcomes (Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Garbarino, 1992). This perspective has been used to explore the life contexts that influence teenage sexuality (Franklin, 1988; Small & Luster, 1994). For heuristic simplicity, influences on sexual behavior are grouped into distal contexts that set the stage for development, such as neighborhood and sociodemographic characteristics, and proximal contexts that impinge on adolescents directly, including family, school, and individual influences. …

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