Ethnic differences in sexual guilt between Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Quebecois emerging adults: the mediating roles of family and religion.
Article Type: Report
Subject: French-Canadians (Psychological aspects)
French-Canadians (Comparative analysis)
Religion (Influence)
Domestic relations (Influence)
English speaking Canadians (Psychological aspects)
English speaking Canadians (Comparative analysis)
Guilt (Demographic aspects)
Sex (Demographic aspects)
Authors: Gravel, Emilie Eve
Young, Marta
Olavarria-Turner, Marcela
Lee, Andrea Ming Si
Pub Date: 12/22/2011
Publication: Name: The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality Publisher: SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada ISSN: 1188-4517
Issue: Date: Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Canadian Subject Form: Sexual behaviour
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 286557617
Full Text: Abstract: Although research suggests that there are ethnic differences in sexual guilt, no research to date has compared different groups of European descent in North America. This is surprising considering that research in Canada has found differences pertaining to sexuality between Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Quebecois (Barrett et al., 2004). Research has also shown that family and religion are important predictors of sexual guilt, although the relative contribution of these factors to ethnic differences in sexual guilt has seldom been examined. The present study sought to determine whether Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Quebecois students differed with respect to sexual guilt and whether these potential differences would be mediated by differences in parental sexual permissiveness and religiosity. A total of 269 university students completed a questionnaire assessing sexual guilt, parental sexual permissiveness, and religiosity. Franco-Quebecois students reported lower levels of sexual guilt than Anglo-Canadian students. Multiple mediation analysis suggests that this result was mediated by differences in parental sexual permissiveness and religiosity. Franco-Quebecois students reported greater sexual permissiveness and lower religiosity in their parents than did Anglo-Canadian students which, in turn, accounted for their lower levels of sexual guilt. Our findings highlight the sociocultural nature of sexual guilt and the relevance of conceptualizing groups of European descent as "ethnic" in cross-cultural sexuality research.


Emerging adulthood is a developmental period extending from late adolescence to the late twenties. For many Western youth, it is characterized by an active exploration of sexuality (Lefkowitz & Gillen, 2006). As emerging adults leave their parents' home, they enjoy greater freedom to explore various facets of sexuality such as their sexual orientation and their beliefs about premarital sexuality, abstinence, contraception, and monogamy and also about their own sexual behaviours (Lefkowitz & Gillen, 2006). For example, 75% of emerging adults in North America have had sexual intercourse by age 20 (Finer, 2003). In Canada, 65% of 18-19 year olds reported having had sexual intercourse at least once (Roterman, 2008). Although this sexual exploration is often a positive, life-enhancing experience, it can engender feelings of sexual guilt because emerging adults are engaged in a process of constructing and negotiating their own codes of sexual conduct against which they evaluate their sexual behaviours.

Sexual guilt

Sexual guilt is typically defined as: "a generalized expectancy for self-mediated punishment for violating standards of proper sexual conduct. Such a disposition might be manifested by resistance to sexual temptation, by inhibited sexual behaviour, or by the disruption of cognitive processes in sex-related situations (Mosher & Cross, 1971, p. 27)".

Although this definition emphasizes sexual guilt as a personality trait or disposition, sexual guilt can also be conceptualized as an emotion. From this perspective, it is viewed as an affective-behavioural complex that either inhibits or promotes different sexual behaviours (Moore & Davidson, 1997). Similarly, Herold and Goodwin (1981) maintain that sexual guilt is more adequately conceptualized as an episodic variable than a personality variable on the basis of a decrease of sexual guilt with age and the existence of only a modest correlation between sexual guilt as a personality trait and episodic feelings of sexual guilt about premarital intercourse.

Previous research has shown that higher sexual guilt has important implications for sexual health and well-being. For instance, it has been linked to lower sexual experience (Sack, Keller, & Hinkle, 1984), lower sexual knowledge (Gunderson & McCary, 1979), lower contraceptive use (Davidson & Moore, 1994), diminished sexual functioning (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2006), greater sexual dissatisfaction (Darling & Davidson, 1987; Moore & Davidson, 1997), lower sexual desire in women (Woo, Brotto, & Gorzalka, 2010a, 2011), and lower incidence of testicular examination in men (Woo, Brotto, & Gorzalka, 2010b).

Most of the research on sexual guilt has focused on the consequences with little attention given to the predictors. Given the consequences for sexual health and well-being, it is important to know why some emerging adults experience more sexual guilt than others. The answer lies, in part, in the relationship between sexuality and culture. Sexuality is socially and culturally constructed with the result that societies differ in what is considered "normative" sexual behaviour (Weeks, 2010). By extension, sexual guilt is inherently socio-cultural in that it arises from the violation of codes of normative sexual conduct. One must look to the relevant socio-cultural factors to understand the determinants of sexual guilt.

Ethnicity and sexual guilt

Cross-cultural research has consistently shown that ethnic groups display great variability in terms of what is considered normative sexual conduct (Weeks, 2010). Christensen's (1969) theory of relative consequences provides a valuable framework to understand these differences. According to this theory, the more a culture is sexually conservative, the more premarital sexual behaviours will be perceived as a violation of sexual values and norms, thereby engendering negative emotions, such as sexual guilt. Results from a number of cross-cultural studies on sexual guilt support the underpinnings of this theory (Abramson & Imai-Marquez, 1982; Cuffee, Hallfors, & Wallers, 2007; Schwartz, 1993; Weinberg, Lottes, & Shaver, 1995; Woo, at al., 2010a, 2010b, 2011).

Surprisingly, no study to date has examined sexual guilt across groups of different European descent in North America and whether their respective socio-cultural contexts differentially impact their experience of sexual guilt. The lack of such research may be explained by the fact that groups of European descent are seldom conceptualized as ethnic groups in cross-cultural sexuality research, and are thus not viewed as being embedded in different sociocultural contexts (Lewis, 2006). According to Lewis (2006), people of European descent in North America are viewed as a homogenous majority group whose main purpose is to serve as a "control group" for research on the sexualities of non-European minority groups. This is problematic because it perpetuates an ethnocentric bias in cross-cultural sexuality research and it hinders our understanding of the relation between socio-cultural factors and sexuality among these groups.

In Canada, there are two distinct majority groups of European descent, Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Canadians. Research has shown differences between Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Canadians, notably Franco-Quebecois, on a broad range of sexual domains. In a large cross-cultural study of sexual attitudes and behaviours in young adults, Maticka-Tyndale and Levy (1992) found that Franco-Quebecois reported greater sexual experience than Anglo-Canadians. Survey data also suggested that Franco-Quebecois adults held more permissive attitudes towards extramarital sexuality, teenage sexuality, homosexuality, and abortion (Bibby, 1995; Grabb & Curtis, 2005). In a behavioural context, Fischtein, Herold, and Desmarais (2007) showed that Quebecois respondents reported greater intentions to engage in casual sex compared to respondents from the Atlantic provinces (but not from British Columbia, the Prairie provinces or Ontario), although this study did not report language and ethnicity of participants. Overall, these studies suggest that Franco-Quebecois are more sexually permissive than Anglo-Canadians.

Several researchers have suggested that the greater sexual permissiveness of the Franco-Quebecois is attributable to the Quiet Revolution, a drastic and rapid secularization process that occurred from the late 1960s to the late 1970s (Barrett, King, Levy, Maticka-Tyndale, McKay, & Fraser, 2004; Grabb & Curtis, 2005; Jones, 1986; Laplante, 2006). During this period, the Catholic Church, which regulated the lives of Franco-Quebecois from "cradle to grave", withdrew from many of Quebec's institutions, such as politics, education, and health care, thereby promoting a shift toward more permissive sexual values (Laplante, 2006). Strong progressive and feminist movements also contributed to the liberalization of attitudes by implementing accessible abortion clinics and contraception, as well as comprehensive sexual education in schools (Reiss & Reiss, 1997). Given that Franco-Quebecois emerging adults have grown up in a more sexually permissive sociocultural context than Anglo-Canadians, levels of sexual guilt may very well differ between these two groups.

Overall, research on sexual guilt and ethnicity has given little attention to the mechanisms underlying ethnic differences. Ethnic differences in family and religion could potentially be at the root of the observed cross-cultural variability in sexual guilt because they are important sites of differences related to sexual expression (Weeks, 2010). Indeed, these two sociocultural factors are important agents of sexual socialization through which ethnic groups transmit their sexual values and norms (Weeks, 2010).

Family and sexual guilt

In most cultures, parents are the first agents of sexual socialization (Cheal, 2002) and as such, the first source of sexual values and norms to which a child is exposed (DeLamater & MacCorquodale, 1979). Children are socialized in a number of ways with respect to sexuality, ranging from direct verbal communication to indirect, non-verbal communication (Lefkowitz & Stoppa, 2006). It has been found, however, that sexual socialization occurs more frequently through indirect communication, especially via sexual attitudes, as parents tend to be more uncomfortable with direct communication about sexuality (Yarber & Greer, 1986). Parental sexual attitudes are thus primordial in transmitting codes of normative sexual conduct to children and youth.

As emerging adults explore their own sexuality, they are likely to evaluate their behaviours in light of their parent's codes of normative sexual conduct. Indeed, research suggests that parents maintain an influence on their children even after they have left the family home (Zarit & Eggebeen, 2002) and the parent-child relationship remains important during adulthood (Bartel-Harin, Brucker, & Hock, 2002). This parental influence on emerging adults may also extend to sexual matters.

Although few studies have examined the influence of parental sexual attitudes on sexual guilt in emerging adults, there are indications that they are indeed linked. In a study of sexually active female adolescents, Herold and Goodwin (1981) found higher levels of sexual guilt in female adolescents whose parents held more conservative views regarding premarital sexuality. Similarly, Propper and Brown (1986) showed that female college students who reported more conservative parental sexual attitudes reported higher levels of sexual guilt. These studies, however, did not include males and were conducted over two decades ago. As the North American sociocultural context has become increasingly permissive regarding sexuality (Wells & Twenge, 2005), it is pertinent to examine whether parental sexual attitudes still influence feelings of sexual guilt in emerging adults, but also whether this relation extends to males.

To the best of our knowledge, the role of parental permissiveness as a possible mediator of ethnic differences in sexual guilt has not been examined. This is surprising given that parental sexual permissiveness varies greatly across ethnic groups. In the United States, Asian-American undergraduates reported the most conservative parental sexual attitudes, followed by African-Americans; European-Americans reported the most permissive parental sexual attitudes (Lottes & Kuriloff, 1992). A qualitative study comparing Dutch and American parents found that, whereas the former viewed premarital sexuality as a "normal" phenomenon, the latter viewed it as "disruptive" to the teenager and the family (Schalet, 2000). In Canada, a cross-cultural study examining adolescent sexual attitudes in Franco-Quebecois, Anglo-Canadians, Anglophone Jews, Francophone Jews, Haitian-Canadians, Italian-Canadians and Greek-Canadians found that Franco-Quebecois adolescents reported the most permissive parental attitudes toward sexuality (Maticka-Tyndale & Levy, 1992). If parental sexual permissiveness varies cross-culturally, and if these attitudes influence sexual guilt, it is possible that differences in sexual guilt could be in part attributable to ethnic differences in parental permissiveness.

Religiosity and sexual guilt

Religion is considered to be an important factor that controls the sexual expression of individuals (Delamater, 1981) and religion is of particular relevance for emerging adults as they explore different world views (Arnett, 2000; Lefkowitz, Gillen, Shearer, & Boone, 2004). In Western societies, Christian denominations have historically restricted sexual expression, deeming it impure and sinful; pleasure-centered sexuality was condemned (Leeming, 2003). The purpose of sexual expression was procreation bounded in the context of heterosexual marriage (Davidson, Darling, & Norton, 1995). Over recent decades, some Christian denominations have softened some of their restrictive positions on sexuality by sanctioning the association of sexuality with spirituality (Murray, Ciarrocchi, & Murray-Swank, 2007). However, religions still have a deep impact on the sexuality of their adherents and cross-cultural studies have documented the continuing association between religiosity and conservative attitudes toward sexuality and sexual behaviours (e.g. Ahrold & Meston, 2010; Meston & Ahrold; 2010; Wyatt & Dunn, 1991).

Since declaration of affiliation with a particular religion does not reflect degree of commitment, researchers have often used measures of religiosity to assess this dimension. Some studies used frequency of church attendance as a way of assessing religiosity (e.g. Davidson, Moore, & Ullstrup, 2004; Gunderson & McCary, 1979; Weis, 1983; Wyatt & Dunn, 1991). Although greater church attendance has been shown to be related to greater sexual guilt, operationalizing religiosity in this manner has been problematic for researchers because church attendance does not adequately capture the importance and strength of a person's faith (Ahrold & Metson, 2010; Lefkowitz et al., 2004; Rostosky, Wilcox, Comer, & Randall, 2004). Studies on sexual guilt that have conceptualized religiosity as the importance of faith in an individual's daily life have also shown that greater religiosity was associated with greater feelings of sexual guilt (Cowden & Bradshaw, 2007; Young & Hubbard, 1992). In the context of the present study, it is of interest that there has been little research on association of religion with ethnic differences in sexual guilt. If greater religiosity is related to greater sexual guilt, it is possible that ethnic groups that are "more religious" will report greater sexual guilt compared to less religious ethnic groups.

With respect to the religiosity of Canadian ethnic groups, research indicates that Anglo-Canadians are more religious than Franco-Quebecois (Grabb & Curtis, 2005). As discussed above, the Quiet Revolution in Quebec probably contributed to this difference by creating a highly secular sociocultural context in which the traditionally Catholic Franco-Quebecois largely abandoned religion as a reference for sexual ethics (Barrett et al., 2006; Grabb & Curtis, 2005; Jones, 1986; Laplante, 2006; Reiss & Reiss, 1997). In the case of Anglo-Canadians, Laplante (2006) argues that the Protestant Church retained more influence on their sexual morality. Laplante attributes this, in part, to the fact that the Protestant Church adapted to the societal changes in sexual norms arising from the sexual revolution by liberalizing it views regarding sexual matters. In sum, because Anglo-Canadians are more religious than Franco-Quebecois and because religiosity has been related to greater sexual guilt, it is plausible that these two groups would differ in terms of their levels of sexual guilt. Although previous studies have revealed ethnic differences in sexual guilt, few have explored the socio-cultural mechanisms underlying these differences.

The present study

The first goal of the present study was to compare levels of sexual guilt in Anglo-Canadian and Franco-Quebecois emerging adults. Based on the reported differences in sexual permissiveness between these ethnic groups, and the expected association of sexual permissiveness with sexual guilt, we hypothesized that Franco-Quebecois would report lower levels of sexual guilt than Anglo-Canadians. Our second goal was to determine whether ethnic differences in sexual guilt were mediated by differences in parental sexual permissiveness and participant's religiosity. We hypothesized that Franco-Quebecois ethnicity would be associated with greater parental permissiveness and lower participant religiosity compared to Anglo-Canadian ethnicity. Finally, we hypothesized that ethnic differences in sexual guilt would be mediated by parental permissiveness and participant religiosity and that lower sexual guilt in Franco-Quebecois compared to Anglo-Canadian emerging adults would be attributable to greater parental sexual permissiveness and lower religiosity among the Franco-Quebecois respondents.



Participants were recruited through posters on campus, class presentations, word of mouth, and through the participant pool of the University's psychology department. All participants took part in the study on a voluntary basis and those who volunteered through the human participant pool received one credit for their introduction to psychology course.

All participants were screened according to the following inclusion criteria: participants had to be born and raised in Canada and enrolled in a post-secondary institution in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. For the Anglo-Canadian sample, participants had to be born and raised in Canada and report English as their first language. Both parents and all grand-parents had to be of British descent (from England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales) and also been born and raised in Canada. For the Franco-Quebecois sample, participants had to be born and raised in Quebec and report French as their first language. Both parents and grand-parents had to be of French descent and had to be born and raised in Quebec. If the eligibility criteria were met, participants were given a package that included a letter describing the nature of the study, a list of psychological resources should they experience psychological distress, and a questionnaire containing the above-mentioned measures and several other measures that were not used in this study. Participants were given the choice to complete the questionnaire in a research laboratory or in a place of their choice. They were informed that they were free to withdraw from the study at any time up until the point they submitted their copy of the questionnaire, but that after that point, it would be impossible to withdraw because to preserve anonymity, there would be no information on the questionnaire enabling them to trace their copy. They were then told that consent was considered obtained if they returned their copy. The study and its procedures were approved by the University's Research and Ethics Board.


To provide a French version of the questionnaire to the Franco-Quebecois participants, measures were translated using the forward and back-translation procedure (Brislin, 1970). All measures were first translated from the original English version to French by a bilingual psychology student in cross- cultural research. This French translation of the questionnaire was then translated back to English by a bilingual student in cross-cultural psychology and any discrepancies were rectified. The French questionnaire was then piloted with 10 participants to ensure clarity of language.


Two hundred and sixty-nine students (155 females, 114 males) enrolled in post secondary institutions of the Ottawa-Gatineau region participated in this study. The sample consisted of 167 Anglo-Canadians and 102 Franco-Quebecois. Participants were aged between 18-27 years-old (M = 21, SD = 2.05). Fifty percent of Anglo-Canadian participants and 42% Franco-Quebecois participants were single at the time of the study. With respect to sexual orientation, 95% of Anglo-Canadians participants and 97% of Franco-Quebecois participants identified themselves as heterosexual. Details about the religious affiliation of the participants by ethnicity are presented in Table 1. The information on sexual orientation, relationship status, and religious was not included in the analyses but is presented to provide a demographics portrait of the sample.


Parental Sexual Permissiveness

Participants assessed their perception of their parents' attitudes toward premarital sex using an 8-item adaptation of the short form of the Premarital Sexual Permissiveness Scale (Schwartz & Reiss, 1995). This scale originally assessed personal attitudes about premarital intercourse. The items were adapted here to measure the extent to which participants perceived that their father and mother were in favour of four types of premarital sexual behaviour: kissing, petting, oral sex, and intercourse (e.g. "My father believes oral sex is acceptable for me before marriage"). Participants rated their parents' sexual permissiveness using a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 to 6 (1 = strongly agree; 2 = moderately agree; 3 = slightly agree; 4 = slightly disagree; 5 = moderately disagree; 6 = strongly disagree). Items were reverse coded so that higher scores indicated more permissive parental attitudes towards premarital sexuality. Cronbach's alphas for the two groups were as follows: Anglo-Canadians = .93, Franco-Quebecois = .91.


Religiosity was assessed using the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire (Plante & Boccaccini, 1996). This 10-item instrument measures the importance of faith in an individual's daily life regardless of religious affiliation or denominations (e.g. "My faith is a source of inspiration"). The original scale used a 4-point Likert-type scale ranging from agree (1) to strongly disagree (4) We added two more response options to give 6-point scale: 1 = strongly agree; 2 = moderately agree; 3 = slightly agree; 4 = slightly disagree; 5 = moderately disagree; and 6 = strongly disagree. Addition of response categories is thought to increase reliability and validity (Lozano, Garcia-Cueto, & Muniz, 2008). Items were reverse coded so that higher scores on a scale of 1-6 designated greater religiosity. Reliabilities were as follows: Anglo-Canadians = .97, Franco-Quebecois = .97.

Sexual guilt

Sexual guilt was assessed using the 5-item guilt subscale from the Attitudes Related to Sexual Concerns Scale (Koch & Cowden, 1998). This subscale includes statements pertaining to guilt associated with particular sexual practices (e.g. "I would feel guilty about masturbating") and the transgression of parental and religious codes of normative sexual conduct (e.g. "I would feel guilty if I did not follow religious teachings about sexual behaviour"). Participants answered these statements using a scale ranging from 1 to 6 (1 = strongly agree; 2 = moderately agree; 3 = slightly agree; 4 = slightly disagree; 5 = moderately disagree; 6 = strongly disagree). The original subscale used a 5-point Likert-type scale, but a 6-point scale was used in this study to improve its reliability and validity (Lozano, Garcia-Cueto, & Muniz, 2008). The category "uncertain" was removed and "moderately agree" and "moderately disagree" categories were added. Three items were reverse-coded, such that higher scores designated greater sexual guilt. Reliabilities for this scale, which also has a range of 1-6, were as follows: Anglo-Canadians, [alpha] = .65 and Franco-Quebecois = .56.

Statistical analyses

Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS 18.0. A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to determine whether there were ethnic differences among the study variables. A mediation analysis was then performed to determine whether ethnic differences in sexual guilt were mediated by parental permissiveness and religiosity. A mediation analysis determines the extent to which there is an indirect relation between an independent and a dependent variable because of an intervening variable, or mediator. In the present study, a multiple mediation analysis using Preacher and Hayes' (2008) bootstrapping strategy was performed to test the significance of the indirect effects of two mediators on sexual guilt. This method allows one to simultaneously test the effects of multiple mediators and to compare their magnitude and is recommended with smaller samples because bootstrap estimates of indirect effects do not operate under the assumption of normality and when the process under study is temporally distal, as was the case in the present study (Shrout & Bolger, 2002). Five thousand samples were used in the bootstrap test to calculate the indirect effects. Significance level was established at p < .05 using a two-tailed test.


Prior to conducting the analyses, missing data were identified and replaced; only 3.7% of cases in the data set contained missing values. Replacement of missing values was done using the expectation maximization algorithm, a maximum likelihood estimator (see Allison, 2001, for details regarding this procedure), due to its superior performance in parameter estimation compared to ad hoc methods, such as case deletion or mean substitution (Buhi, Goodson, & Neilands, 2008). The data set was then screened for univariate and multivariate outliers (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001). Data screening for univariate outliers revealed that no standardized scores exceeded the value of 3.29. Mahalanobis distances were examined to screen for potential multivariate outliers. Data screening revealed that no cases exceeded [chi square] (3) = 16.27, p < .001. Descriptive statistics for the study variables are presented in Table 2.

Results from the MANOVA indicated that Ethnicity had a significant effect sexual on guilt, F (1,267) = 14.34., [n.sub.p.sup.2] = .05 p < .001, suggesting that Anglop Canadians reported greater sexual guilt than Franco-Quebecois. Anglo-Canadians also perceived their parents to be less permissive toward premarital sexuality than Franco-Quebecois, F (1,267) = 61.56, [n.sub.p.sup.2] = .19, p < .001. In addition, Anglo-Canadians reported being more religious than Franco-Quebecois, F (1,267) = 10.82., [n.sub.p.sup.2] = .04 p = .001.

Results from the multiple mediation analysis are presented in Table 3 and in Figure 1. Age and gender were analyzed as covariates. Age was initially included in the model but was removed because it di not significantly correlate with sexual guilt; gender was never included in the model because no gender differences in sexual guilt were found. The model explained 23% of the variance in sexual guilt between Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Quebecois, [R.sup.2] = .23, F (3,265) = 28.03, p < .0001. The direct paths from ethnicity to parental sexual permissiveness (t = 7.84, p < .0001) and religiosity (t = -3.28, p < .01) were both significant, indicating that Franco-Quebecois ethnicity was associated with greater parental permissiveness and lower religiosity* The paths linking parental sexual permissiveness (t = -2.99, p < .01) and religiosity (t = 6.25, p < .0001) to sexual guilt were also significant, suggesting that lower parental sexual permissiveness and greater religiosity were associated with greater sexual guilt. The significance of the indirect paths was computed using 95% and 99% confidence intervals (CI). The total indirect effect, ab = -.29, SE = .07, was significant at p < .05, [CI.sub.95] = -.42, -. 15, and at p < .01, [CI.sub.99] = -.47, -. 11. The indirect path involving parental permissiveness, [a.sub.1][b.sub.1] = -. 15, SE = .06, was significant at p < .05, [CI.sub.95] = -.29, -.03, but not at p < .01 as the CI overlapped with 0, [CI.sub.99] = -.33, .01. The indirect path involving religiosity, [a.sub.2][b.sub.2] = -. 13, SE = .04, was also significant at p < .05, [CI.sub.95] = -.24, -.06, and at p < .01, [CI.sub.99] = -.26, -.04. The magnitude of the indirect paths did not differ significantly, [CI.sub.95] = -. 19, .16, suggesting that the indirect path through parental sexual permissiveness was comparable in magnitude to the indirect path through religiosity.

Finally, whereas the total effect of ethnicity on sexual guilt was significant (t = -3.79, p < .001), its direct effect was not (t = -1.24, p = .22). Overall, these results suggest that the difference in sexual guilt between Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Quebecois is mediated by differences in parental permissiveness and participant religiosity.



Sexual guilt emerges when codes of normative sexual conduct are violated (Mosher & Cross, 1971). Although these codes are clearly socially and culturally constructed, the sociocultural mechanisms underlying ethnic differences in sexual guilt have seldom been explored. The main objective of this study was to examine whether Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Quebecois differed with respect to sexual guilt, and if so, whether these differences were attributable to variations in parental permissiveness and religiosity.

The results provided support for our hypothesis that Euro-Canadian ethnic groups differed in their levels of sexual guilt. It was found that Anglo-Canadians reported higher levels of sexual guilt than Franco-Quebecois. This finding lends support to Christensen's (1969) theory of relative consequences, which posits that the more sexually conservative a group is, the more its members are likely to experience sexual guilt following premarital sexual behaviours because such behaviours violate the group's sexual values and norms. Consistent with this theory, previous studies have shown that more sexually conservative ethnic groups reported higher levels of sexual guilt (Abramson & Imai-Marquez, 1982; Cuffee et al., 2007; Schwartz, 1993; Woo et al., 2010a, 2010b, 2011; Weinberg et al., 1995). Past Canadian research has found that Franco-Quebecois were more sexually permissive than Anglo-Canadians (Bibby, 1995; Fischtein, and al., 2007; Grabb & Curtis, 2005; Maticka-Tyndale & Levy, 1992). Given that greater sexual permissiveness in a group is linked to lower feelings of sexual guilt, it is therefore not surprising that these two groups differed in terms of sexual guilt.

It is important to contextualize these findings historically. As noted previously, the province of Quebec underwent a rapid and drastic secularization process that was unprecedented in the rest of Canadian society and that led to the emergence of more permissive sexual values (Barrett et al., 2006; Grabb & Curtis, 2005; Jones, 1986; Laplante, 2006). Given the more sexually permissive sociocultural context in which Franco-Quebecois are socialized, it follows that they would report less sexual guilt. As permissive codes of sexual conduct actually translate into fewer codes of sexual conducts to be transgressed, there are thus fewer instances of sexual expression that can engender feelings of sexual guilt within a sexually permissive sociocultural context (Christensen, 1969).

The ethnic differences in sexual guilt found between Anglo-Canadians and Franco-Canadians also underscore the importance of conceptualizing majority groups of European origin as "ethnic" in cross-cultural sexuality research. According to Lewis (2006), such a conceptualization may be less obvious to some U.S. researchers as the "melting pot" ideology has considerably weakened much of the cultural distinctiveness of groups of European descent, resulting in a more homogenous conception of "white" ethnicity. On the other hand, multiculturalism policies in Canada have enabled groups of different European descent, as well as other ethnic groups, to retain much of their distinctive cultural values and practices, which are at the root of their differences regarding sexuality. In sum, beneath an appearance of homogeneity, groups of different European origins are embedded in distinct sociocultural contexts that shape their sexualities in unique ways and this reality warrants greater consideration in cross-cultural sexuality research.

The results also suggested that Franco-Quebecois ethnicity was associated with greater parental sexual permissiveness and lower religiosity. These results are consistent with a previous study conducted with adolescents that found that Franco-Quebecois perceived their parents to endorse more permissive attitudes regarding premarital sexuality than Anglo-Canadians (Maticka-Tyndale & Levy, 1992). They also converge with survey data that suggest that Franco-Quebecois are less religious than their Anglo-Canadian counterparts (Grabb & Curtis, 2005). Taken together, the findings that Franco-Quebecois report greater parental permissiveness and lower religiosity in comparison to Anglo-Canadians can be viewed as another manifestation of the more secular and sexually permissive sociocultural context that emerged as a result of the Quiet Revolution (Barrett et al., 2006; Grabb & Curtis, 2005; Jones, 1986; Laplante, 2006).

Furthermore, lower parental permissiveness was associated with greater sexual guilt, lending support to past studies on parental sexual attitudes and sexual guilt (Herold & Goodwin, 1981; Propper & Brown, 1986) and to the idea that parents continue to maintain an important influence on their children during emerging adulthood (Zarit & Egebeen, 2002). Parental sexual attitudes convey parents' codes of normative sexual conduct and these clearly have a impact on the experience of sexual guilt during emerging adulthood because of the enduring influence of parents on their children's lives past adolescence. It is thus possible that emerging adults who report conservative parental attitudes about sexuality are more likely to experience feelings of sexual guilt because they interpret their sexual behaviours as a violation of their parents' codes of normative sexual conduct.

Greater participant religiosity was also associated with greater sexual guilt, lending further empirical support to the positive relationship between religiosity and sexual guilt (Cowden & Bradshaw, 2007; Davidson et al., 2004; Gunderson & McCary, 1979; Weis, 1983; Young & Hubbard, 1992). Religiosity is viewed as an indicator of the extent to which emerging adults also use religion as a reference to evaluate their sexual conduct (Lefkowitz et al., 2004). In this sense, greater religiosity reflects a greater adherence to religious codes of sexual conduct. As religions tend to prescribe more conservative codes of premarital sexual conduct, engaging in premarital sexual behaviours represents a violation of these codes, which in turn explains why religious emerging adults are more likely to experience sexual guilt.

Congruent with our second hypothesis, multiple mediation analysis indicated that ethnic differences in sexual guilt were mediated by differences in parental permissiveness and religiosity. The greater parental permissiveness and lower religiosity reported by the Franco-Quebecois thus accounted for their lower levels of sexual guilt in comparison to the Anglo-Canadians participants. The sociocultural context in which Franco-Quebecois are socialized does appear to support more liberal codes of sexual conduct through greater parental permissiveness and lower religiosity, which in turn promotes lower levels of sexual guilt. Future cross-cultural sex research should therefore examine these processes in longitudinal designs to establish their causality. In sum, these results highlight the importance of examining the mechanisms that underlie ethnic differences in sexual guilt. Although a limited number of studies have found ethnic differences in sexual guilt (Cuffee et al., 2007; Schwartz, 1993; Woo et al., 2010a, 2010b, 2011; Weinberg et al., 1995), few have examined the processes underlying these differences. Overall, the results of the present study suggest that examining the mediating role of sociocultural factors is an important avenue to better understand ethnic differences in sexual guilt. Family and religion are important agents of sexual socialization in that they are vectors through which codes of normative sexual conduct are transmitted (Delamater, 1981). As these factors manifest differently across ethnic groups, so will the nature and the strength of the codes transmitted through them. Ultimately, these variations will significantly impact levels of sexual guilt across ethnic groups. Future studies should therefore examine the role of other sociocultural factors, such as sexual values and socioeconomic status to further our understanding of ethnic differences in sexual guilt.

Limitations and concluding observations

Results from this study should be interpreted with some caution due to several limitations. First, this study used a convenience sample of university students, which can limit the generalizability of its findings to emerging adults in the general population. Second, these results are susceptible to volunteer bias because participants in sexuality research tend to report lower levels of sexual guilt compared to those who chose not to participate (Catania, McDermott, & Pollack, 1986; Strassberg & Lowe, 1995; Weiderman, 1999). Third, it is important to note that the ethnic difference in group means for sexual guilt found in this study was small, as suggested by the value of the eta square. Ahrold and Metson (2010) note that small ethnic differences in group means are indicative of an effect that is more meaningful at a population level because there is substantial overlap in the distributions of sexual domains across ethnic groups. Large samples are then necessary to identify these differences. These authors therefore suggest using acculturation measures to assess ethnic differences with greater precision than ethnicity alone. Although this suggestion is appropriate for first and second generation non-European ethnic groups, it is not applicable to North American groups of European descent as they tend to experience enculturation, or the incorporation of cultural elements, during socialization rather than acculturation, which typically refers to migrants' adoption of mainstream cultural elements (Weinreich, 2009). Moreover, acculturation measures are proxies of sexual values and norms and thus cannot directly tap into these constructs. As a result, it becomes difficult to untangle what exactly is producing a relationship between acculturation and sexuality when such a measure is used. A more fruitful route in understanding ethnic differences in sexuality would be to develop instruments that assess cross-cultural sexual values and norms. Finally, the sexual guilt scale displayed modest reliability in both samples, which could be attributable to three factors. First, Cronbach's Alpha is sensitive to the number of items in a scale; the present study used a five-item scale, which could have decreased its value. Second, inter-item correlations indicated that the item pertaining to masturbation guilt correlated poorly with the other items. It was decided however to retain this item as its deletion would have resulted in a reduction of the reliability coefficient. Furthermore, lack of variance among the participants, especially in the Franco-Quebecois sample, could have significantly reduced the value of the reliability coefficient.

The findings of this study highlight the importance of examining the sociocultural nature of sexual guilt and of being aware that what is considered "normative" sexual conduct is significantly shaped by ethnicity, family and religion. The role of family and religion as mechanisms underlying ethnic differences in sexual guilt is also important. Since sexual guilt can have consequences for sexual health and well-being, clinical interventions and sexual education programs require careful consideration of these factors. To our knowledge, this is the first Canadian cross-cultural study to examine the socio-cultural predictors of sexual guilt in groups of distinct European descent. It shows the unique ways in which differing sociocultural contexts shape sexualities and emphasizes the importance of conceptualizing groups of European descent as ethnic groups in cross-cultural sexuality research.

Acknowledgements: This research was made possible, in part, by a grant to Emilie Eve Gravel from the Association des Universites de la Francophonie Canadienne.


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Emilie Eve Gravel (1), Marta Young (1), Marcela Olavarria-Turner (1) and Andrea Ming Si Lee (1)

(1) School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Prof. Marta Young, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, 136 Jean-Jacques Lussier, Rm. 4076, Ottawa, ON KIN 6N5. E-mail:
Table 1 Religious affiliation by ethnicity

Religious                 Anglo-     Franco
affiliation              Canadian   Quebecois

Agnostic                     2           4
Atheist                      5           8
Buddhist                     0           1
Catholic                    41          77
Christian                   74           1
Evangelical Christian        1           0
Muslim                       0           0
None                         8           9
Other                        5           0
Protestant                  15           0
Missing                     16           2

Note: Anglo-Canadian, N = 167; Franco-Quebecois, N = 102.

Table 2 Descriptive statistics for study variables by ethnicity

                         Anglo-Canadian          Franco-Quebecois

Variables             M     SD      Range     M     SD      Range

Sexual guilt         2.13  0.93   1.00-4.40  1.71  0.77   1.00-4.40
Parental attitudes   4.60  1.25   1.43-6.00  5.67  0.70   2.63-6.00
Religiosity          2.43  1.36   1.00-6.00  1.89  1.17   1.00-6.00

Note: Anglo-Canadian, N = 167; Franco-Quebecois, N = 102.

Table 3 Direct, indirect and total effects of ethnicity, rental
sexual attitudes, and religiosity on sexual guilt

Variables                B     SE      t      p

a paths
  Parental attitudes    1.06   .14    7.85   ****
  Religiosity           -.53   .16   -3.29   **
b paths
  Parental attitudes    -.14   .05   -2.99   **
  Religiosity            .24   .04    6.25   ****
ab paths
  Total                 -.28   .07   -4.04   ****
  Parental attitudes    -.15   .07   -2.29   *
  Religiosity           -.13   .04   -2.94   **
  c path                -.42   .11   -3.79   ***
c' path                 -.14   .11   -1.24

Note: a paths represent the effect of ethnicity on the mediators.
b paths represent the effect of the mediators on sexual  guilt.
ab paths represent indirect effects of ethnicity on sexual guilt
through the mediators. The standard deviations for  the ab paths
are bootstrap-derived estimates of the standard error of the
indirect effects. The c path represents the direct  effect of
ethnicity on sexual guilt. The c' path represents the effect of
ethnicity on sexual guilt after controlling for parental  sexual
attitudes and religiosity. * p < .05 ** p < .01 *** p < .001 ****
p < .0001.
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