Demographic differences in adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors, parent communication about sex, and school sex education.
Abstract: The purpose of this study was to explore the demographic differences and similarities (for race, gender, and age) in a diverse urban sample on the following variables: Adolescent sexual behaviors, parental attitudes towards sex, maternal amount of communication, paternal amount of communication, and whether or not school was a source of sex education. The sample consisted of 406 African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic adolescents aged 12-18 from urban and suburban Midwestern communities. Results generally support the findings of previous studies. Gender was found to be the most consistent factor upon sexual communication, with girls receiving significantly more sex talk than boys from their mothers. Age proved to be a consistent factor among all adolescent sexual behaviors, with older adolescents receiving more communication but also having more promiscuous attitudes towards sex. This study is unique in that it simultaneously addresses paternal and maternal attitudes towards sex. Other results and their implications are discussed.
Subject: Hispanic Americans (Behavior)
Hispanic Americans (Sexual behavior)
Hispanic Americans (Social aspects)
African Americans (Behavior)
African Americans (Sexual behavior)
African Americans (Social aspects)
Sex education (Social aspects)
Sex (Social aspects)
Teenagers (Behavior)
Teenagers (Sexual behavior)
Teenagers (Social aspects)
Youth (Behavior)
Youth (Sexual behavior)
Youth (Social aspects)
Education (Social aspects)
Sex education for youth (Social aspects)
Authors: Tobey, Jacquelyn
Hillman, Stephen B.
Anagurthi, Claudia
Somers, Cheryl L.
Pub Date: 01/01/2011
Publication: Name: Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality Publisher: The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Family and marriage; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality ISSN: 1545-5556
Issue: Date: Annual, 2011 Source Volume: 14
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs Canadian Subject Form: Sexual behaviour; Teenage sexual behaviour
Product: Product Code: E123400 Hispanic Americans; E121930 Youth; 8200000 Education NAICS Code: 61 Educational Services
Accession Number: 281460231
Full Text: Introduction

Many studies have focused on the correlates of adolescent sexual behavior in order to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence the initiation of sexual behaviors. For instance, Jerman and Constantine (2010) found that demographic variables in combination with parental comfort with sexual communication as well as the knowledge parents held about sexual health issues strongly predicted the number of topics discussed between parent and child. As parents continue to be the primary source of knowledge about healthy sexual behaviors for their adolescents (Moore, Raymond, Mittelstaedt, & Tanner, 2002), the need remains to study the multiple variables related to sexual risk taking behaviors, especially since significant disparities in the amount of correct sexual knowledge held by parents were found (Gallegos, Villarruel, & Gomez, 2007). Also, the timing of sexual communication seems to matter considerably, with more favorable outcomes for teenagers and their families when such communication has happened before the onset of first sexual activity (Clawson & Reese-Weber, 2003).

Age and, related to this, maturity levels of adolescents seemed to be one of the most important demographic variables influencing sexual risk taking behaviors. When middle school students from a large sample were examined, those students who were involved with an older romantic partner, and those girls who experienced early onset of menarche (before 7 th grade), were significantly more likely to have had sex than were younger or less mature students (Marin, Kirby, Hudes, Coyle, & Gomez, 2006). Similarly, Santelli et al. (2000) and Somers and Paulson (2000) found that older adolescents reported more frequent sexual behaviors and more sexual knowledge than did younger adolescents. In fact, according to Somers and Paulson (2000), "research continually produces findings that age is the primary correlate of sexual behavior" (p.640), including onset of sexual intercourse, frequency of sexual behavior, and use of contraception. There is a need to expand this literature to include more races/ethnicities as well as contexts of potential influence. Thus, the current study utilized an ecological perspective (e.g., Brofenbrenner, 1977), in which the most proximal contexts of family/parents and school, were examined within a diverse sample of adolescents.

Differences by Gender

Research also supports gender differences in adolescent sexual behavior, whereby heterosexual males engage more frequently in sexual behaviors such as petting and intercourse, and have done so more recently than heterosexual females (DeGaston, Weed, & Jensen, 1996; Somers & Paulson, 2000). In a study of adolescent risk-taking behaviors in single-parent ethnic minority families, Kotchick, Dorsey, Miller, and Forehand (1999) found that adolescent males were more likely to engage in inconsistent condom use and also report a higher number of serial, short-term monogamous relationships than females.

DeGaston et al. (1996), as well as Zimmer-Gembeck and Helfand (2008), found that males, in addition to being more sexually active, also hold more permissive sexual attitudes than females. Specifically, they found that females are more committed to abstinence and less likely to approve of premarital sex than are males. O'Donnell et al. (2005) also found that females were significantly more likely to see premarital sex in a negative manner than did males. Recent research has rarely addressed specific age and racial/ethnic differences in terms of adolescent sexual attitudes by gender.

Research has continually shown a gender difference in parent-adolescent communication about sex. Females are more likely to discuss sex-related issues with parents and to have done so more recently than males did (Raffaelli, Bogenschneider, & Flood, 1998; Hutchinson, 2002). At the same time, parents are more likely to talk to their daughters than to their sons (Rosenthal & Feldman, 1999; Byers, Sears, &Weaver, 2008). Interestingly, however, adolescents themselves have reported that their parents discuss sexual topics very infrequently, even when discussion topics are related to reducing risky behaviors (Jaccard, Dittus, & Gordon, 2000). However, former studies did not differentiate between other demographic factors or between differences in the amount of paternal or maternal sources of information even though those differences may be significant. Kotchick et al. (1999), for example, found that mothers and daughters discussed more sex-related content areas and had better communication than did mothers and sons. In a study of perceptions of parent-adolescent closeness and communication about sexuality, Somers and Paulson (2000) found that females reported higher levels of maternal closeness, maternal communication, and sexual knowledge than did males. Additionally, Markham et al. (2003) found that the quality of mother daughter relationship was negatively related to amount of sexual risk-taking behaviors. Heisler (2005) also reported that females are more knowledgeable about sexual issues (i.e., anatomy, physiology, contraception) and tend to receive more sexual health related care throughout adulthood than males (Kalmuss & Tatum, 2007). In summary, the gender differences in communication pattern between adolescents and their parents point to a direction in which mothers communicate the most with their daughters, both parents communicate generally more with their daughters rather than their sons, and therefore, sons receive the least amount of communication from either their mother or father.

Parental attitudes toward premarital and/or adolescent sex also differ by the gender of the teen that they are talking to. This is important because permissive parental values about premarital sex are related to earlier sexual activity for individuals of all genders (Kotchick et al., 1999, Regnerus, 2005). Mothers tend to communicate more conservative attitudes to their daughters rather than their sons, and females also perceive their mothers as such (Cosby & Miller, 2002). Also, significantly more females than males were found to talk with mothers about parental approval of teen sex specifically (Raffaelli et al., 1998).

Differences by Ethnicity

The literature shows that adolescents' sexual behaviors do vary by race/ethnicity, though the patterns are not as clear as they are for age and gender. For instance African-American minority adolescents engage in sexual intercourse at an earlier age and with greater frequency than do Caucasian adolescents, and they frequently have engaged with more partners than any other racial minority (Grunbaum et al., 2003). In another study, Hispanic adolescents were twice as likely to become a teen parent and thus can be assumed to have initiated risky sexual behaviors more frequently than other teens (Solorio et al, 2004). Furthermore, Hispanic adolescents' intentions to engage in high risk sexual behaviors rose when they came from an increasingly lower SES or engaged in other risky behaviors (Frank, Cerda, & Rendon, 2007). These differences seem to show some degree of consistency, but specific patterns of sexual communication between adolescents and parents in minority groups need more exploration.

In a study by Dittus et al. (1997) and Miller, Forehand, and Kotchick (1999), results revealed that maternal orientation about premarital sex was predictive of African American adolescents' sexual behavior, and that the orientation had an even greater effect if the mother and adolescent had engaged in extensive communication about sex. High paternal disapproval was also associated with lower rates of sexual intercourse for both genders, and moreso when both parents were perceived as strongly disapproving of premarital sex (Moore & Chase-Lansdale, 2001; Bersamin, 2008). The same held true for Hispanic adolescents, where those who perceived their mothers' attitudes toward both adolescent sex and premarital sex as more conservative reported the lowest rates of sexual behavior (Afable-Munsuz & Brindis, 2006).

School Sex Education

Although parents are the primary context in which adolescents develop, another context that can play a role in the development of sexual attitudes and behaviors for adolescents is sex education within schools. In a review of over 60 studies, Kirby (2002) found that some school programs effectively decreased school dropout rates, increased attachment to schools and school performance, and reduced liberal sexual attitudes as well as actual sexual risk taking behaviors. Conversely, other studies have indicated that sex education courses did not change the frequency of intercourse, masturbation, oral-genital sex, petting, or pre-marital sex among adolescents (Ashcraft, 2008; Dailard, 2003). It is, therefore, important to continue to study this topic in an effort to distinguish which features of programs are effective in reducing risk behavior and associated outcomes. Schools can be effective in fostering healthy adolescent sexual development, whether by delaying onset of sexual behaviors or by promoting safe behaviors for those adolescents who are already sexually active.

Purpose of the Study

The focus of this study is on parents and schools and their roles in adolescent sexuality. From an ecological theoretical perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1977, 1989, 2005; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998), proximal life contexts such as family/parents and schools play significant roles in development. Despite the fact that sex education in schools is likely a primary source of sexual information for adolescents, studies of school sex education programs have not looked specifically at demographic differences in age, gender, and race/ethnicity, nor have they examined these differences within the context of adolescent sexual behavior, adolescent sexual attitudes, and parent-adolescent communication. Although there seems to be much information to support gender differences in terms of adolescent behavior, attitudes, and parent-child communication, the information about race and age on these topics is found less frequently in research and is inconclusive. The purpose of this study was to explore the demographic differences and similarities (for race, gender, and age) in a diverse urban sample on the following variables: Adolescent sexual behaviors, parental attitudes towards sex, maternal amount of communication, paternal amount of communication, and whether or not school was a source of sex education. A primary goal is to better understand whether or not (and how) sex education approaches need to be tailored differently to various subgroups of adolescents.

Method

Participants

The sample for the current study was 406 adolescent males and females in the 9th through 12th grades of three public high schools--two urban, one suburban. The average age was 15.97 (SD=1.26). Three major racial/ethnic groups were represented: African American, Caucasian, and Hispanic primarily Mexican-American. Age was re-coded so that the sample consisted of two groups: Younger adolescents aged 12-15.5 (n=170) and older adolescents aged 15.6-18 (n=236). Race was also recoded so that only African American (n=81), Caucasian (n=172), and Hispanic (n=153) subjects were included in the analysis. Table 1 shows the final number of subjects in the sample used here and for each demographic category.

Most Caucasian students were from a suburban area and most minority students were from two urban areas of a large mid-western city. The suburban area is primarily middle socioeconomic status (SES) and the urban areas are primarily lower SES.

Measures

Demographic questions yielded information about age, grade, race, and gender. Additional measures of behavior outcomes, sexual attitudes, parent communication, sources of sex education, and timing of sex education were also collected.

Sexual behaviors. The original 18-item instrument used to derive the measures in this study was the SKAT-A (Sex Knowledge and Attitudes Test for Adolescents; Leif, Fullard, & Devlin, 1990). This scale included a variety of general sexual behaviors, including reading pornography and talking with peers and parents about sex. This was modified in subsequent studies to ten items and yielded internal consistency reliability coefficients of .86 (Somers & Paulson, 2000) and .88 (Somers & Fahlman, 2001). In the current study, this measure was further reduced to five overt sexual behaviors (Dating, Kissing, Petting/Fondling, Oral Sex, Sexual Intercourse--vaginal or anal not specified). Adolescents responded on a five-point scale to reveal how frequently they have engaged in each behavior in the past year (ranging from "never" to "daily"). These were summed to create a total sexual behavior score. Higher total scores represented greater amounts of general sexual behavior with a possible range between 5 and 25. In the current sample, the total sexual behavior scale resulted in an overall alpha of .83. Sexual attitudes . A five-item scale was used to assess adolescents' sexual attitudes, defined as attitudes toward premarital intercourse. Items were taken from the Mathtech Attitude and Value Scales (Kirby, 1990). Adolescents responded using a five-point scale (1=Strongly Disagree, 5=Strongly Agree), with higher scores representing liberal attitudes regarding sex (scores have a possible range between 5 and 25). The sexual attitudes subscale is comprised of items such as "Unmarried people should not have sex" and "It is all right for two people to have sex before marriage." The Cronbach's alpha coefficient was .94 in Kirby's (1990) source--males and females were combined. The current study yielded alphas of .89 for males and .88 for females.

Parent communication about sexuality. A shortened version of a sexual communication measure was used (Somers & Paulson, 2000). Adolescents rated their perceptions of the amount of communication about twenty sexual topics (i.e., dating, pregnancy, intercourse) that they had received from each parent (mother/mother-figure and father/father-figure). The amount of communication for each topic was rated on a five-point scale ranging from "never" to "a lot of times." Responses were summed and higher scores represented greater amounts of communication (scores have a possible range between 20 and 100). Alphas for the current sample were .88 (males) and .90 (females) for maternal communication and .93 (males) and .90 (females) for paternal communication.

Parental attitudes toward premarital sex. One item was used to determine parents' attitudes about premarital sex as perceived by the adolescent. The item was answered separately for both a mother/mother-figure and a father/father-figure. The adolescent selected from a range of statements with the most conservative coded as 1 ("she thinks that I should definitely NOT have sex before marriage") to the most liberal coded as 6 ("she thinks that it's OK to have sex before marriage, but she just doesn't want me to have it while I am in high school").

Sex education. Adolescents were asked to indicate which of each of ten topics were discussed by their schools. The ten items reflecting various sexual topics were: Reproductive system, menstruation/nocturnal emissions (the term "wet dreams" was used on the actual surveys), petting, oral sex, sexual intercourse, the importance of using birth control, consequences of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, love and/or marriage, and whether pre-marital sex is right or wrong. For each of the 10 topics, the responses were coded as 1 if they identified ever having learned about that topic from school, and 0 if they never learned about that topic from school. Responses across all ten items were summed to create a score from 0 to 10.

Procedure

Students who were permitted by their parents to participate were then also asked for their own assent to participate. Participation was voluntary. Approximately 67% of students approached at one of the urban schools participated, and more than 95% of students approached at the other two schools participated most likely due to greater encouragement and support from teachers and their principals as observed by the researchers. Students completed a paper and pencil survey in their classrooms under supervision of the original researcher and/or the teachers. Rates of behavior for the samples were similar to national averages, and thus the sample is believed to be representative of the larger adolescent population. Students who participated were not believed to be significantly different than those who did not participate. The University Institutional Review Board approved all procedures.

Results

The sample demonstrated variability in their responses to all variables. See Table 2 for means and standard deviations on all variables for the full sample. Although the averages are low in some cases (indicating low sexual behavior and relatively conservative parent attitudes about premarital sex, for just two examples), the standard deviation figures suggest that there is a range of attitudes and behaviors warranting consideration of these data as heterogeneous. Univariate Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was the procedure used to analyze the data. Results are in Table 3.

Sexual Behaviors

There was a significant main effect for the frequency of sexual behaviors by age, with adolescents between the ages of 15.5 and 18 years engaging in more frequent sexual activities as compared to those adolescents between the ages 12 and 15.5 years (p<.05). This was the only demographic variable that varied significantly on frequency of sexual behaviors.

Sexual Attitudes

Sexual attitudes only varied by gender. Specifically, males were found to be more consistently approving of premarital sex than females (p<.05).

Parental Communication about Sexuality

Parental communication was measured separately for mothers and fathers. Females received significantly more information from their mothers about sex and sexual health issues than did males (p<.001).

Next, the extent to which fathers communicated about sex was examined. Significant main effects were found for two of the three demographic variables: (1) the amount of communication received from fathers varied by gender, with males receiving significantly more communication from their fathers than females (p<.01), and (2) race was significant at the 0.05 level. Pairwise comparisons allowed for post hoc examination of findings and revealed that African American adolescents received significantly more communication from their fathers than did Caucasian adolescents and Caucasian adolescents received more communication from their fathers than did Hispanic adolescents (Tukey's HSD: p<.05, Bonferroni: p<.05). Age group (12-15.5 years old versus 15.5-18 years old) was not a significant variable.

Additionally, there was an interaction between age and race (F[1]=4.297, p<.05). Specifically, males in the younger group received the most communication from fathers (mean=27.5) followed by older males (mean=21.1). Females in the younger and older groups received the least amount of communication from their fathers (mean =18.5 and mean =18.7). Additionally older adolescents reported that their father's attitudes toward premarital sex were significantly more approving of premarital sex than younger adolescents (p<.05) towards premarital sex. Gender and race were not significant factors for this variable. See Table 4.

Parental Attitudes toward Premarital Sex

Maternal attitudes toward premarital sex did not differ by any of the measured demographic variables. Fathers held less restrictive attitudes for their older adolescents than their younger adolescents (p<.05).

School Sex Education

Finally, on the variable that measured school as a source of sex education there was a significant main effect for gender (p<.05), with females citing school as a source for sex education more than males. Race and age differences did not reach significant difference levels.

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to explore differences of age, gender, and ethnicity in a diverse, urban sample, to supplement the few studies that explored samples on multiple demographic variables at the same time. In such studies, differences between ethnicity, gender, and most consistently age have been found but often findings were inconclusive.

Consistent with literature across several decades, results revealed that age was most consistently correlated with all of the variables (e.g. Somers & Paulson, 2000; O'Donell, 2005), with older adolescents reporting more frequent sexual behaviors, having more promiscuous sexual attitudes, reporting more sex education from school, and receiving more communication from parents about sex. Such findings makes sense, as when adolescents mature physically and psychologically, the likelihood of sexual activities increases, while parents may be more inclined to talk to their teens about sex when full maturation of their child has occurred.

An analysis of results by gender revealed that mothers seem to communicate more frequently with daughters, while sons receive more communication from their fathers than daughters do. However, males reported receiving just about the same amount of communication from both parents. Therefore, consistent with existing literature, mothers/mother-figures are the primary sex educators in the household, while the role of the father remains unclear. Males also reported the least amount of sex education from school. These results have important implications. For example, adolescent males tend to have more promiscuous attitudes, higher frequency of sexual behaviors (DeGaston, Weed, & Jensen, 1996), lesser likelihood of contraceptives usage, and STD prevention (Kotchick, Dorsey, Miller, and Forehand, 1999). However, they seem to receive the least amount of sexual health information. The impression that fathers may be able to make upon their children deserves further exploration.

Race was also a significant factor in fathers' communication, with African-American adolescents reporting having received significantly more communication from fathers than Caucasian adolescents, and Caucasian adolescents reporting that they received more communication from fathers than Hispanic adolescents. These findings seem to correlate with findings from a study by Hovell et al. (1994), in which Caucasian parents engaged in more communication about sex than did Hispanic parents. Again, it seems as if the groups with the highest risks receive the least amount of preventative measures, such as parental communication about sex, especially since the impact that parents can make upon their children is well established in the literature (e.g. Jaccard, Dittus, & Gordon, 2000; Rosenthal & Feldman, 1999; Zamboni & Silver, 2009). These results exemplify the need for preventive education and intervention to be tailored to the groups most in need of the information.

Finally, because there are apparent differences in the amount that mothers and fathers communicate to their children, and also the amount of communication that sons and daughters receive, this information may support designing programs that are more beneficial to males, perhaps by providing separate curricula to males and females. At the same time awareness among parents should be raised in that the input of both parents to sex education may be more beneficial than the contribution of just one parent.

Limitations of the study must also be mentioned. First, although this is fairly large sample, a much larger sample would ensure additional power in the analyses and would hold for more valid between-group comparisons. Also, the demographic categories of race and socioeconomic status (SES) were inseparable, as most Caucasian students were from a suburban, primarily middle SES area, and most African-American and Hispanic students were from urban, primarily lower SES area. Future research could work to ensure a larger sample that would include all economic levels within each race. The measures within each context could be expanded to include more aspects of the parent or school effect (e.g., more on what details are taught and how, adolescents' levels of receptivity to the messages of parents and schools, etc.). Additionally, inclusion of other contexts that impact adolescents (e.g., peers, religious institutions, media, etc.) will also be important. Limitations, including those mentioned here, are important to consider when making interpretations about the data and results. These results may not be generalizable to other samples.

Despite the mentioned limitations, the study has several strengths that can certainly be utilized to guide future research and practice. Overall, these results support the notion that tailoring educational attempts for males and females and for different racial groups would be a beneficial practice. Additionally, tailoring developmentally sound efforts for each age groups is also likely to be effective.

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Jacquelyn Tobey, Stephen B. Hillman, Claudia Anagurthi, & Cheryl L. Somers

Wayne State University

Please address correspondence and requests for additional information to: Cheryl L. Somers, 345 College of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; (313) 577-1670; c.somers@wayne.edu.
Table 1. Number of subjects by demographic category

Age                 Gender   Race         N

Younger (12-15.5)   Male     African-A.     15
                             Caucasian      31
                             Hispanic       31
                             Total          77
                    Female   African-A.     23
                             Caucasian      34
                             Hispanic       36
                             Total          93
                    Total                  170

Older (15.6-18)     Male     African-A.     17
                             Caucasian      42
                             Hispanic       43
                             Total         102
                    Female   African-A.     26
                             Caucasian      65
                             Hispanic       43
                             Total         134
                    Total                  236
Total                                      406

Table 2. Means and standard deviations for all variables for the full
sample.

                                          Standard
                                  Mean    Deviation   Minimum   Maximum

Sex behaviors                     12.49        5.24         5        25
Sex attitudes                     17.04        4.97         5        25
Mother communication about sex    28.29       10.94        10        50
Father communication about sex    20.69       10.28        10        50
Mother's attitude toward           2.59         1.4         1         6
  premarital sex
Father's attitude toward           2.45        1.53         1         6
  premarital sex
School as source of sex             4.7        3.07         0        10
  education

Table 3. Differences among means for
independent and dependent variables

                               Age                     Gender

                       Younger    Older      Male         Female

Sex behaviors (5-25)   12.092 *   13.323 *   13.273       12.137

Sex attitudes (5-25)   17.958     18.231     18.773 *     17.415 *

Mother communication   27.73      28.609     24.604 ***   31.735 ***
about sex (20-100)

Father communication   23.424     19.804     24.585 **    18.643 **
about sex (20-100)

Mother's attitude      2.869      3.106      3.124        2.85
toward premarital
sex (1-6)

Father's attitude      2.730 *    3.272 *    3.305        2.749
toward premarital
sex (1-6)

School as source of    4.066      4.021      3.493 *      4.595 *
sex education (1-10)

                                    Race

                       African-
                       American   Caucasian   Hispanic

Sex behaviors (5-25)   12.741     12.123      13.345

Sex attitudes (5-25)   18.661     17.729      17.826

Mother communication   30.215     26.21       28.056
about sex (20-100)

Father communication   25.087 *   18.682 *    20.892 *
about sex (20-100)

Mother's attitude      3.106      3.032       2.769
toward premarital
sex (1-6)

Father's attitude      3.361      3.064       2.542
toward premarital
sex (1-6)

School as source of    3.341      4.707       4.096
sex education (1-10)

The range for possible scores is indicated in
parentheses next to the independent variable.

* p<.05, ** p<.01, *** p<.001

Table 4. Significance Levels for Independent
Variable Interactions for each Dependent Variable

                                          Age*Gender   Age*Race

Sex behaviors                             .231         .146
Sex attitudes                             .911         .069
Mother communication about sex            .614         .790
Father communication about sex            .039 *       .538
Mother's attitude toward premarital sex   .487         .763
Father's attitude toward premarital sex   .548         .268
School as source of sex education         .056         .780

                                          Gender*Race   Age*Gender*Race

Sex behaviors                             .547          .798
Sex attitudes                             .188          .199
Mother communication about sex            .888          .663
Father communication about sex            .340          .434
Mother's attitude toward premarital sex   .468          .954
Father's attitude toward premarital sex   .071          .313
School as source of sex education         .107          .424
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