Academic journal article Human Organization

Understanding the Onset of Intercourse among Urban American Adolescents: A Cultural Process Framework Using Qualitative and Quantitative Data

Academic journal article Human Organization

Understanding the Onset of Intercourse among Urban American Adolescents: A Cultural Process Framework Using Qualitative and Quantitative Data

Article excerpt

Understanding the Onset of Intercourse among Urban American Adolescents: A Cultural Process Framework Using Qualitative and Quantitative Data

JILL FLORENCE LACKEY AND D. PAUL MOBERG

In the United States, most researchers studying ways to prevent risky sexual behavior among adolescents limit their inquiries and analyses to antecedent factors such as individual skills, family relationships, and peer pressure. In 1996, a team conducting a Milwaukee needs assessment studied this topic in a wider range of contexts. The research team conducted 13 focus groups of & 10 participants each (n = 101) in area community centers, and a cross-sectional survey of 593 youth and 95 of their parents in the participants' homes, using a random, cluster sampling plan. Data analysis included development and testing of a path model on cultural transmission of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Findings from both the qualitative and quantitative data indicated that adolescent sexual meanings and practices are embedded in cultural processes. The qualitative youth data suggested that teens are inundated by messages that glamorize and mystify sex, and that these messages proceed through American popular culture (particularly music), and various subcultural environments. The quantitative findings suggested that these subcultures are likely to emerge in areas with few opportunities and resources for residents, a result supported by some American subculture frameworks, including illegitimate opportunity theory.

Key words: culture, subculture, adolescent sexual practices, opportunity structures, needs assessment; US, Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Most researchers studying sexual practices among American adolescents tend to limit their analyses to the influences of individual characteristics, peer pressure, or family relationships on the behavior. While a small number of researchers collect data on the larger structural factors - such as youth-related public policy, the media and popular culture, and socioeconomic constraints -- almost none attempt to integrate the various levels into a cultural model on teen sexuality.

In a review of teen pregnancy research, Kirby (1997) summarized over 100 recent studies on the antecedents of adolescent sexual behavior and evaluations of programs designed to reduce sexual risk-taking. Grouping the studies of sexual antecedents into levels of analysis, he cited 40 on individual influences, 19 on family factors, 12 on peer/partner interrelationships, and a mere 7 on state/community influences (and most of these were analysis of demographic data). Even more enlightening was Kirby's review of prevention programs. Of the 50 programs he described with rigorous evaluations (usually the larger and/or more stable efforts), 41 aimed the core of their interventions at improving decision-making skills or the sexual knowledge of individual adolescents. The others designed services for parents of teens, attempted to increase institutional access to health care, or placed adolescents in volunteer or job training environments. He described only one program that worked simultaneously at multiple social levels to impact teen sexuality (Polen and Freeborn, 1995). This program attempted to influence public policy, organize communities, build individual teen skills, increase access to health care, and change media images and community values. When discussing the findings from these evaluations, Kirby acknowledged that the more effective initiatives were those multi-component efforts that addressed lack of opportunity, community values, family functioning, and social organization.

We will argue in this article that these individual, family, peer, and structural constructs are important influences on adolescent sexuality, but would be better addressed in an integrated cultural model. We will maintain that with multiple methods, a battery of instruments developed through community participation, and a random, cluster sampling plan in residential neighborhoods, a cultural framework emerges as the more inclusive and cogent force behind teen sexual activity. …

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