The regulation and supervision of the access of young people (especially young women) to sex have always been considered critical issues. All societies, at every period of their history, have striven to have control over sexual initiation, 1 given the key role of sex in biological and social reproduction 2 (Kontula, 1991; Loyola, 1992). Sexual debut remains a moment of great significance, for social norms and representations, cultural scripts, institutional arrangements and legal constraints come together with physical practices to give this memorable event its full meaning (Gagnon and Simon, 1973).
The timing and conditions of sexual initiation in developed societies have followed secular trends that are related to the overall social and cultural transformations that have taken place in recent decades (Roussel, 1987; Van de Kaa, 1987; Trost, 1990). In Europe for instance, a general trend towards a relaxation of social mores has been observed, since the 1960s, against a background of a weakening in the influence of religion. Patterns of marital and family behaviour have likewise undergone radical changes involving such major shifts as lower fertility rates, the postponement of and reduction in the number of marriages, a rise in births out of wedlock, an increase in informal cohabitation, especially at the start of unions, and higher divorce rates. These reflect mainly young women’s changing attitudes, also expressed in the dramatic spread of reliable birth control methods, the rise in women’s level of education and women’s rapidly growing participation in the labour force. All this caused a notable increase in female autonomy by reducing parental control, male economic domination and the fear (and reality) of unwanted pregnancy. Changes in cultural attitudes and wider opportunities of choice