Gender, Ethnicity, and the Developmental Timing of First Sexual and Romantic Experiences

Article excerpt

One of the most important tasks faced by adolescents and young adults is the formation of romantic relationships. Little is known, however, about the developmental timing of early relational experiences. This study investigated the age at which an ethnically diverse sample of young adults (N = 683) experienced their very first date, love, serious relationship, kiss, and act of intercourse. Most had experienced each event by the end of high school, with first dates and kisses occurring at earlier ages than falling in love or intercourse. Gender and ethnic differences were found. For example, young men began dating at earlier ages than did young women. Asian American participants were less sexually and romantically experienced, and had their very first sexual experiences at an older age, than African American, Latino/Hispanic, and Caucasian/non-Hispanic White participants. Interestingly, there were no differences in first romantic love experience. Almost all men and women within each ethnic group had fallen in love at least once, typically around age 17; this suggests that romantic love is a common human life event and that it first occurs during the developmental period spanning late adolescence and early adulthood.

Adolescence is a time of sexual and romantic awakening (see Christopher, 2001; Collins & Laursen, 2000). Developmental theorists posit that one of the most important tasks faced by adolescent boys and girls is the formation of romantic relationships (e.g., Erikson, 1968; Sullivan, 1953), and empirical research provides evidence that dating is an important component of this life stage (e.g., Dowdy & Kliewer, 1998; Thornton, 1990). Researchers interested in the nature of early romantic attachments have tended to focus on the sexual aspects of these relationships, in part due to the potentially negative consequences of adolescent sexual activity (e.g., pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease; Sagrestano & Paikoff, 1997; Zelnik & Kantner, 1980). Some have focused on sexual attitudes, finding that many high school and college students believe that sexual intercourse is an important and appropriate element of dating relationships (Sprecher, McKinney, Walsh, & Anderson, 1988), and that intercourse can bring a dating couple closer together and increase the partners' feelings of emotional connection and commitment (Muram, Rosenthal, Tolley, Peeler, & Dorko, 1991). Other researchers have focused on sexual behavior, conducting large-scale surveys and finding that American adolescents are becoming sexually active at increasingly younger ages (see Paikoff, McCormick, & Sagrestano, 2000).

Social and behavioral scientists have explored a variety of individual-level factors that are associated with sexual experiences during adolescence and young adulthood. Two in particular - gender and racial/ethnic affiliation - have received the most attention. Studies reveal that boys and young men often report higher rates of intercourse experience than do girls and young women. For example, Paikoff and colleagues (2000) found that the majority of early adolescent (i.e., 12- to 14-year-old) boys and girls who participated in their study had the opportunity to engage in various sexual activities, with more boys (30%) than girls (14%) experiencing intercourse. Levels of adolescent sexual intercourse experience also vary among different ethnic and racial groups within the United States. In their review of the literature, Miller and Leavitt (2003) reported that 79% of African Americans and 54% of Latino/as between the ages of 15 and 19 have had sexual intercourse, compared to 37% of Euro-Americans and 16% of Asian Americans. These researchers further noted that African American teenagers became sexually active at an earlier age than did teenagers from other ethnic groups (also see Strunin, 1991; Zelnik & Kantner, 1980).

Because most research in this area has focused on sexual intercourse, little is known about other (and not necessarily sexual) aspects of early romantic attachments. …


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