Influence of Older Siblings on Initiation of Sexual Intercourse

By Widmer, Eric D. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Influence of Older Siblings on Initiation of Sexual Intercourse


Widmer, Eric D., Journal of Marriage and Family


This article hypothesizes that older siblings influence the timing of younger siblings' first intercourse because they are orientational others for them (i.e., others who provide individuals with a concept of self through communication) and, therefore, intermediaries to their own reference group. Matching 183 pairs of independent interviews of cohabiting adolescent siblings (from Philadelphia) and controlling for parental attitudes and behavior relevant to teenage sexuality, this analysis investigates several effects associated with older siblings as orientational others. Interaction of these effects with gender is addressed. The results indicate that the sexual behavior of older brothers has a significant influence on the timing of younger siblings' initiation of sexual intercourse.

Key Words: gendered sexual behavior, initiation of sexual activity, orientational other, sibling influence.

In recent years, siblings' influence on adolescents' initiation of sexual intercourse has received increased attention. Research suggests that older siblings have an influence on the age at first intercourse of their younger siblings (Moore, Miller, Glei, & Morrison,1995). Using a large, nationally representative data set, Rodgers, Rowe, and Harris (1992, see also Rodgers & Rowe, 1988) showed that second-born adolescents are more sexually active than firstborns at any age. Haurin and Mott (1990) found siblings' ages at first intercourse to be positively correlated, controlling for background variables.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the processes underlying these results. Little evidence has been presented on how the gender composition of sibling dyads affects sexual activity. In addition, most studies that test sibling effects include no or only minimal statistical control of parental behavior and attitudes relevant to the initiation of sexual activity. These parental features, which siblings partly share growing up in the same family, might reveal the spuriousness of correlation between siblings' sexual behavior. This article investigates some factors affecting early initiation of sexual intercourse that are associated with sibling influence, as well as the interaction of these factors with the siblings' gender. It tests these sibling effects, controlling for parental behavior and attitudes relevant to teenage initiation of sexual activity.

OLDER SIBLINGS AS ORIENTATIONAL OTHERS

Scholars interested in factors associated with adolescent sexual behavior often have emphasized the role of family and friends as reference groups (Mirande, 1968; Reiss, 1967; Rodgers & Rowe, 1990). Concepts such as "reference person" (Hyman, 1942), "reference individual" (Merton, 1957), or "orientational other" (Kuhn, 1964) suggest that individuals actively use specific persons as references when they shape their own beliefs and behaviors (Schmitt, 1972). Kuhn defines orientational others as people to whom subjects are committed emotionally and psychologically, who provide subjects with a concept of self, and who influence a subject's self-definition through communication. Note that, once established, the persistence of someone as an orientational other does not require frequent, recent, or long interactions (Milardo, 1989; Surra & Milardo, 1991).

Many siblings meet Kuhn's definition of the orientational other. Emotional support and communication have been found to be prime features of sibling relationships (Cicirelli, 1994, 1995). Even though the frequency of interaction among siblings decreases in late adolescence and young adulthood (Adams, 1968; Allan, 1979; Cicirelli, 1982), feelings of closeness, admiration, belonging, and identity are widespread and generally last over the life cycle (Cicirelli, 1982, 1995; Goetting, 1986; Ross & Milgram, 1982). However, on all these dimensions, there is asymmetry between older and younger siblings. Younger siblings value their sibling interactions more than older siblings, report greater admiration for older siblings, and imitate their sibling more (Buhrmester, 1992; Pepler, Abramovitch, & Corter, 1981). …

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