Community Effects on Youth Sexual Activity

Article excerpt

Using longitudinal data from the National Survey of Children, we examined the impact of community socioeconomic status on four dimensions of adolescent and young adult premarital sexual activity-the timing of first intercourse, the frequency of intercourse, the number of different sex partners, and the likelihood of engaging in unprotected intercourse. We found significant positive effects of a multiitem index of community socioeconomic disadvantage on all but the timing of first premarital intercourse, net of controls for the socioeconomic and demographic status of adolescents and their families. None of the most commonly cited explanations for neighborhood effects on adolescent behavior can fully explain these associations. Only the attitudes and behaviors of peers account for even a small portion of the observed impact of community disadvantage on youth sexual behavior. Adolescents' acceptance of premarital childbearing, educational aspirations and attachment to school, and parental supervision, although frequently associated with youth sexual behavior, do little to mediate the impact of community disadvantage on sexual activity.

Key Words: adolescence, contraception, intercourse, neighborhoods, peer groups, sexual activity.

Recent research has begun to explore the impact of community and neighborhood characteristics on various dimensions of sexual activity among adolescents and young adults (Billy, Brewster, & Grady, 1994; Brewster, 1994a, 1994b; Brewster, Billy, & Grady, 1993; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Ramirez-Valles, Zimmerman, & Newcomb, 1998; Upchurch, Aneshensel, Sucoff, & Levy-Storms, 1999). Spurred in large measure by Wilson's (1987, 1996) influential treatises describing the detrimental consequences of spatially concentrated poverty, as well as by research documenting important neighborhood effects on adolescent childbearing (Billy & Moore, 1992; Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Sealand, 1993; South & Crowder, 1999; Sucoff & Upchurch, 1998), educational attainment (Crane, 1991; Duncan, 1994), delinquency (Elliott et al., 1996; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997), and other outcomes (Massey & Shibuya, 1995), these studies have examined whether the timing of first sexual intercourse, the frequency of intercourse, and patterns of contraceptive use differ across neighborhoods of varying socioeconomic status, controlling for individual- and family-level characteristics known to influence these behaviors. Although the designs of these studies differ in important respects, in general this research shows that youth from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods initiate intercourse earlier (Hogan & Kitagawa), have sex more often and with more partners (Billy et al.; Ramirez-Valles et al.), and are less likely to use contraceptives (Mosher & McNally, 1991) than are their counterparts residing in wealthier neighborhoods.

However, few if any of these studies have explored the potential mechanisms that link neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage to these dimensions of youth sexual activity. Indeed, as many observers have noted (Brewster, 1994a; Jencks & Mayer, 1990; Sampson, 1998), little research on neighborhood effects has attempted to determine why these adolescent behaviors appear more frequent in economically disadvantaged communities. A key reason this important issue has gone largely unexplored is that most data sets that have been used to determine the existence of neighborhood effects lack measures of the mechanisms thought to transmit such effects.

Using the longitudinal National Survey of Children (NSC) and data from the 1980 U.S. census, our primary objective in this article is to reexamine the impact of neighborhood characteristics on adolescent and young adult sexual activity, with a particular eye toward exploring the possible mechanisms that link neighborhood conditions to the initiation and frequency of sexual intercourse, the number of different sex partners, and the use of contraception. …


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