The Influence of Peer Sexual Activity upon College Students' Sexual Behavior

By Brandhorst, Scott R.; Ferguson, Brandon et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Peer Sexual Activity upon College Students' Sexual Behavior


Brandhorst, Scott R., Ferguson, Brandon, Sebby, Rickard A., Weeks, Ryan, North American Journal of Psychology


The interplay between parental and peer influence on adolescents' and young adults' acquisition of sexual information and willingness to engage in sexual behavior has been the subject of extensive research (e.g., Allen, Porter, & McFarland, 2006; Darling & Hicks, 1982; Gebhard, 1977; Jaccard, Blanton, & Dodge, 2005). Parents have historically been the primary source of sexual information before the child reaches adolescence and turns to peers for more specific guidance regarding sexual behavior. Parental discussions typically occur early in puberty and typically peak around 9th or 10th grade (e.g., Dilorio, Kelley, & Hockenberry-Eaton, 1999; Treboux & Busch-Rossnagel, 1995). Thereafter, parental influence loses power and peers step in as a part-time pseudo-parent when the child reaches adolescence and begins searching for social and sexual knowledge. Peer influence is at its peak during 11th and 12th grade (Treboux & Busch-Rossnagel). Kinsman, Romer, Furstenberg, and Schwarz (1998) reported that peers create a need for normality in an individual, causing sex to be initiated in order to meet this standard of normality. The need for normality takes over and triggers an overestimation in the individual's own judgments of the frequency of peer's sexual activity (Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne, & Holck, 2005). Additionally, Brady, Dolcini, Harper, and Pollack (2009) reported those teens that are faced with stressful life trials, and simultaneously lack a strong peer support system, would engage in risky sexual behavior. Individuals who engage in high-risk behaviors are frequently aware that their behaviors are risky but do not believe they are personally at risk (van der Pligt, 1996). In fact, previous research (Snyder & Rouse, 1992; Wiebe & Black, 1997) indicates high-risk individuals' sexual behavior is not influenced by the lack of sexual knowledge; it only serves to create inaccurate perceptions for those who are at lower risk.

Based upon the observations above, individuals faced with stressful experiences and who lack a strong support network may be more likely to rely upon perceptions of peer norms that may define acceptable levels of sexual activity. Moreover, if more frequent sexual activity is perceived to be normative, the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behavior (e.g., unprotected sex) may be greater. Entry into college presents most adolescents and young adults with a significantly stressful experience (e.g., Alipuria, 2008; Zaleski, Levey-Thors, & Schiaffion, 1998). Moreover, Franklin and Dotger (2011) found that freshmen (relative to seniors) enter college lacking significant sexual knowledge in a variety of areas (viz., birth control, sexual relations, reproduction, and male biological sexuality).

Thus, lack of knowledge in combination with stress associated with transition to college may lead many individuals to rely increasingly upon new peers for assistance adapting to the expectations of college life (Alipuria, 2008). Such reliance may be fraught with additional problems. Evidence suggests that adolescents may be inaccurate in characterizing the behavior and attitudes of peers (Bauman & Fisher, 1986; Kandel, 1996; Wilcox & Udry, 1986), leading individuals to misperceive standards of normality or to overestimate the sexual attitudes or behaviors of peers. If peers are perceived to be sexually active, students who believe they are more sexually knowledgeable (perhaps erroneously) may be especially likely to engage in more frequent sexual behavior. To date, no research study has examined the relationships between individuals' perception of their own sexual knowledge, their actual knowledge, and the relationship of these variables with perceived peer sexual activity. Given the expectation that entry into college is stressful, reliance upon peer behavior as a standard may lead individuals to adopt patterns and frequency of sexual behavior that are perceived to be similar to their peers. …

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