Race Differences in Family Experience and Early Sexual Initiation: Dynamic Models of Family Structure and Family Change

By Wu, Lawrence L.; Thomson, Elizabeth | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Race Differences in Family Experience and Early Sexual Initiation: Dynamic Models of Family Structure and Family Change


Wu, Lawrence L., Thomson, Elizabeth, Journal of Marriage and Family


We examine the effects of family structure on age at first sexual intercourse before marriage for a recent cohort of women. Previous research on the linkage between family structure and sexual initiation has employed relatively crude measures of family structure-typically a snapshot of the respondent's family structure at age 14. We use retrospective parent histories from the 1979-1987 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to construct dynamic measures of family structure, using information on the number and types of parents in the respondent's household between birth and age 18. We use these measures in proportional hazard models to test the effects of prolonged exposure to a single-mother family, prolonged absence of a biological father, parental presence during adolescence, and family turbulence. For White women, age-specific rates of first sexual intercourse are significantly and positively associated with the number of family transitions; for Black women, age-specific rates are significantly and positively associated with having resided in a mother-only or father-only family during adolescence. Net of other effects of family structure, we

find no significant effects for White or Black women of being born out of wedlock, prolonged exposure to a single-mother family, or prolonged absence of a biological father. Our results for White women are consistent with a turbulence hypothesis, whereas for Black women our results suggest the importance of family structure during adolescence. For neither White nor Black women are our results consistent with hypotheses positing earlier initiation of sexual activity for women with prolonged exposure to a single-mother or fatherabsent family.

Key Words: family structure dynamics, father abuse, premarital sexual initiation, racial and ethnic differences, single mothers.

Numerous studies have found that sexual activity occurs earlier for adolescents who experienced a parental divorce or who have an absent father relative to those who resided with both biological parents (Billy, Brewster, & Grady, 1994; Booth, Brinkerhoff, & White, 1984; Brewster, 1994; Flewelling & Bauman, 1990; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Inazu & Fox, 1980; Newcomer & Udry, 1984; Thornton & Camburn, 1987; Trent & South, 1992; Weinstein & Thornton, 1989; Whitbeck, Simons, & Goldberg, 1996). This empirical association is important because of the increasing prevalence of single-parent families and because early sexual activity may increase the risk of contraceptive nonuse, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, teen motherhood, and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Despite substantial empirical research, the mechanisms linking family structure to the initiation of sexual activity are not well understood. One difficulty has been the reliance of much previous research on relatively crude measures of family structure-typically a child's family structure at age 14. Such snapshot measures say little about what aspect of family structure influences adolescent behavior, in part because they conflate differences in an adolescent's family trajectory that are, we argue, important in explaining the timing of first intercourse. In addition, snapshot measures ignore the increasingly fluid nature of family life accompanying increases in nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and remarriage.

We use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to examine age-specific rates of first sexual intercourse before first marriage for a nationally representative sample of women who entered adolescence during the late 1970s and early 1980s. We exploit detailed family histories available in the NLSY to estimate the effects of the number of family transitions, exposure to specific types of families, and family structure during adolescence. These results help shed light on how parental socialization, parental supervision during adolescence, and family turbulence may have affected the timing of sexual initiation for this cohort of women. …

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