Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Teen Sexual Behavior: Applicability of the Theory of Reasoned Action

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Teen Sexual Behavior: Applicability of the Theory of Reasoned Action

Article excerpt

We examined the utility of the theory, of reasoned action for predicting sexual intercourse among teenagers and determined whether it holds for both genders and for those with and without prior sexual experience. The data include 749 students who were in 9th-11th grades when the predictors were measured and in IOth-12th grades when sexual intercourse was assessed. About half (53%) were girls, about half (48%) were non-Hispanic European Americans. Results showed that prior sexual experience was related to a higher rate of sexual intercourse, but boys and girls did not differ. Tests of the causal model for subgroups (boy and girl virgins, boy and girl nonvirgins) yielded similar results. As predicted, paths from intentions to behavior and from norms and attitudes to intentions were significant, as were paths from outcome and normative beliefs to attitude and norm, respectively.

Key Words: adolescents, sexual behavior, sexual intercourse, teenagers.

The majority of young people (about 80%) in the U.S. become sexually experienced during their teen years, typically in their mid to late teens (Singh & Darroch, 1999). Sociologists have long been interested in explaining the transition to first intercourse among teenagers not only because it has been linked to unintended pregnancies, early family formation, and sexually transmitted diseases (Berman & Hein, 1999; Moore, Driscoll, & Lindberg, 1998), but also because sexual intercourse is an important marker of adolescent development (Meschke, Bartholomae, & Zentall, 2000). This interest has led to a large literature on teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and contraceptive use (see Moore, Miller, Glei, & Morrison, 1995, for a review), most of which has focused on identifying sociodemographic and family characteristics related to teen sexual behaviors. What is not well understood are the more proximal factors that influence youths' decisions to engage in sex (Carvajal et al., 1999). These factors are important to elucidate because they may ultimately aid our understanding of how more distal factors such as neighborhood, family structure, and social class influence behavior at the individual level (Baumer & South, 2001).

THEORY OF REASONED ACTION

The theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) is a cognitive model of the decision to engage in a behavior. The theory of reasoned action takes what Cooper, Shapiro, and Powers (1998) have described as a functionalist perspective and rests on the assumption that the decision to engage in a behavior is based on the outcomes that the individual expects to accrue from the behavior. Motives, or anticipated outcomes, for sex may be positive (pleasure, intimacy, regard) or negative (unintended pregnancy, disease, disapproval). The individual's assessment of salient outcomes can be measured and combined into a testable causal model that links these beliefs to intention and behavior. The theory does not encompass the exogenous predictors of beliefs, be they sociocultural, hormonal, or idiosyncratic, but rather focuses on the organization of cognitive components that directly predict intention and behavior.

According to the theory of reasoned action, a decision to engage in a behavior (e.g., to have sex) is directly predicted by an individual's intention to perform the behavior. Intention, in turn, is a function of two factors: the individual's attitude toward the behavior (how desirable the behavior seems to me), and the individual's perception of general social norms regarding the behavior (what others think I should do). Both attitudes and norms are formed on the basis of sets of beliefs: beliefs about the consequences of performing the behavior (e.g., I will get pregnant), and beliefs about how significant others feel about the individual performing the behavior (e.g., my best friend's beliefs). Each outcome belief underlying attitude has two components: likelihood (how likely is it that I will get pregnant? …

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