Sexual Attitudes and Behavior at Four Universities: Do Region, Race, And/or Religion Matter?

By Davidson, J. Kenneth, Sr.; Moore, Nelwyn B. et al. | Adolescence, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Sexual Attitudes and Behavior at Four Universities: Do Region, Race, And/or Religion Matter?


Davidson, J. Kenneth, Sr., Moore, Nelwyn B., Earle, John R., Davis, Robert, Adolescence


Research now reveals that individuals engage in their most extensive identity exploration during emerging adulthood rather than early adolescence as previously believed (Arnett, 2000). This developmental stage of individuation is well in process for college-age students as they arrive on university campuses that no longer provide personnel acting in loco parentis. Instead, while surrounded by peer pressure that encourages premarital sexual activity, they encounter innumerable opportunities to develop a new sense of self. Decades of increases in rates of premarital sexual intercourse (PSI) and risk-taking sexual practices evidence these facts (Cooper, 2002). Although the National Youth Risk behavior Survey found no significant change in percentages of PSI between 1999-2003 by sex or race/ethnicity (Feijoo, 2004), this leveling trend is difficult to verify among college students because of variances in sample characteristics reflected in the research. Nevertheless, as sexual attitudes became more liberal, female and male views about sexuality converged, narrowing the gap in levels of PSI between women and men. But, Davidson (1993) found that motives for engaging in sexual intercourse remained divergent, with more women than men insisting that sexual intercourse occur within an affectionate relationship, findings corroborated a decade later by Hill (2002).

The gap between the levels of sexual activity by race/ethnicity also appears to be disappearing (Upchurch, Levy-Storms, Sucoff, & Aneshensel, 1998). Although PSI varies according to race/ethnicity, with the highest level of activity being among Blacks followed by whites, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans, the rate of increase among the general population has been greatest for white women (Langer, Warheit, & McDonald, 2001). Weinberg and Williams (1988) argued that the more liberal Black sexual patterns are associated with a distinct subculture that is more detached from family controls and less subject to moralistic dictates.

DeLamater (1987) claims that institutions affect sexual attitudes and behavior, not by dictating specific levels of permissiveness but by creating and maintaining different orientations toward sexuality. The institutions of education, religion, and family are believed to control sexual behavior through stigmatization, socialization, and surveillance, processes that unfold as individuals internalize the norms of sexuality and become self-regulating (Ellingson, Van Haitsma, Laumann, & Tebbe, 2004). But, consistently high rates of PSI and liberalization of attitudes toward sexuality suggest that the surveillance powers of religion and family have declined. However, Meier's (2003) findings that religiosity is still an important predictor of sexual behavior were confirmed by Davidson, Moore, and Ullstrup (2004) who found that students who were more devout and/or more involved in institutionalized religion were less likely to be sexually permissive. And, Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, and Michaels (1994) found that Black women were almost twice as likely as white women to indicate that religion shaped their sexual behavior. As the child's first reference group, the family is also an important predictor of sexual attitudes and behavior, with more positive sexual attitudes and safer sexual behaviors occurring among college women whose parents were the first source of information about sexual intercourse (Moore & Davidson, 1999).

Suggesting the significance of broader social factors, regional differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors were noted in the Laumann et al. (1994) study of the social organization of sexuality in the general population. Using the typology of normative orientations: traditional, relational, and recreational, they differentiated various sexuality orientations. Regional respondents who held a traditional orientation, West South Central (WSC), viewed the primary purpose of sexual intercourse as procreation; the relational respondents, East North Central (ENC), as a natural part of a loving relationship; and the recreational respondents, South Atlantic (SA), as pleasure. …

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