Contextual Effects on the Sexual Behavior of Adolescent Women

Article excerpt

Much of the research addressing the causes of adolescent nonmarital sexual activity has adopted a microlevel orientation, examining the influence of the adolescent's social, psychological, and physical characteristics on his or her sexual behavior. However, interest in the impact of the social context on teens' sexual behavior has prompted some investigators to explore the effects of variables exogenous to the individual adolescent. Although many of these contextual studies address the impact of family structure and peer group characteristics, a few investigators have raised the level of explanation further, examining the influence of the school (Day, 1992; Furstenberg, Morgan, Moore, & Peterson, 1987) and community contexts (Billy, 1983; Brewster, Billy, & Grady, 1993; Hogan, Astone, & Kitagawa, 1985; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Ku, Sonenstein, & Pleck, 1993; Sonenstein, Pleck, & Ku, 1992).

The latter group of studies, although small, provides compelling evidence that adolescent sexual behavior is shaped not just by individual-level characteristics, but also by the nature of the surrounding social context. Despite differences in sample, study design, and the operationalization of "community," these studies all report significant contextual effects. Further, community characteristics have been shown to impact at other points in the reproductive process, including an adolescent's use of contraception (Brewster et al., 1993; Hogan et al., 1985; Ku et al., 1993; Mosher & McNally, 1991; Sonenstein et al., 1992), pregnancy risk (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Ku et al., 1993; Sonenstein et al., 1992), and nonmarital childbearing (Billy & Moore, 1992; Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Sealand, 1993; Crane, 1991; Ku et al., 1993; Plotnick, 1990). The nature of these effects is largely consistent across studies. Communities characterized by a paucity of economic resources, racial segregation, and social disorganization seem to provide young people with little motivation to avoid behaviors with potentially deleterious consequences, such as unprotected intercourse and a consequent nonmarital birth.

These insights provide the foundation for the present investigation. We examine the impact of a wide range of community characteristics on three aspects of an adolescent female's sexual behavior: the likelihood that the young woman will experience nonmarital first intercourse, her coital frequency if she is sexually active, and the consistency of her exposure to intercourse. This study fills a notable gap in the contextual literature on adolescent reproductive behavior. Prior work has explored the influence of the community context on the transition to sexual activity and on the possible consequences of sexual activity. However, the impact of the social context on a female's sexual behavior subsequent to first intercourse has received no attention even though coital frequency and consistency of exposure are important determinants of pregnancy risk and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.


Microlevel studies have found many social and demographic factors to differentiate sexually active teens from their virgin peers, including age, race, educational achievement and aspirations, religiosity and religious affiliation, sex education courses, and family background characteristics. Typically, the influence of these factors is explained in terms of their role in shaping the value--or balance of costs and benefits--a young woman attaches to sexual activity through their effects on her knowledge about reproduction and contraception, her access to reproductive services and information, and her expectations about the likely course of her adult life. We contend that community characteristics influence sexual behavior in much the same way--by providing a structure of constraints that shape the knowledge and attitudes that ultimately guide teens' choices about their sexual behavior. …