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Teaching Parents Strategies for Difficult Teens
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Section 24
Adolescents’ Transition to First Intercourse, Religiosity,
& Attitudes About Sex

CEU Question 24 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Parenting
Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

The effect of religiosity on first sex is mediated by attitudes about sex. Regarding reciprocal effects, having sex for the first time has a significant effect on later attitudes, but not religiosity.

Until very recently, the average age at which young people began having sex had steadily decreased. Now, most American adolescents report that they have had sex by they time they graduate from high school (Singh & Darroch 1999). Naturally, this trend has generated a good deal of policy and research interest over the past several decades. Political and moralistic arguments often cite a degeneration of values as the source of the trend toward earlier sex. Arguments of this tenor implicate detachment from religion as fundamental to this downward shift in age at first sex. These arguments are not pure rhetoric. Empirical evidence confirms that American's attitudes toward premarital sex have become more permissive over time and the influence of religiosity on these beliefs has deteriorated (Petersen & Donnenwerth 1997). Furthermore, to the extent that religiosity still influences sexual attitudes and behavior, people are less likely to attend church today than in past decades (Hadaway, Marler & Chaves 1993).

Many studies have examined the influence of religiosity on adolescent sex. Most of this research finds that religious individuals have first sex at a later age than those who are less religious (Brewster et al. 1998; Ku, Sonenstein & Plecket 1993; Lammers et al. 2000; Resnick et al. 1997). These studies have arrived at the significant association between religiosity and first sex using cross-sectional data. Several prospective studies document the protective effect of church attendance and strength of convictions in shaping attitudes about sex (Miller et al. 1997; Thornton & Camburn 1987, 1989). Other studies show that attitudes about sex influence sexual behavior (Miller & Moore 1990; Moore, Peterson &Furstenberg 1986; Musick and Bumpass 1999; Whitbecket al. 1999). Thus, the literature on religiosity, attitudes, and sex offers two causal propositions. First, a low degree of religiosity leads to more permissive attitudes about sex. Second, more permissive attitudes lead to earlier first sex. Few studies have combined religiosity and attitudes in the same conceptual model to predict sexual behavior.

The consistent association between religiosity and adolescent sex is often interpreted as the influence of religiosity on whether or not to have sex. Likewise, the relationship between attitudes and first sex is assumed to be the influence of attitudes on sex. However, the relationships between religiosity and attitudes on the one hand and first sex on the other may not be unidirectional. That is, religiosity may affect sex, but having sex may also affect subsequent religiosity. Thus, reported associations between religiosity and sex using cross-sectional data include both of these possible relationships, although they are rarely specified separately. The same nonrecursive relationship is possible between attitudes about sex and sexual behavior. There are very few studies that have explored possible reciprocal relationships between religiosity and first sex or attitudes and first sex.

First, how do religiosity and attitudes about sex operate together to influence the probability of first sex? Second, what is the extent of the causal relationships between religiosity and first sex and attitudes and first sex?

Religiosity, Attitudes, and First Sex
As noted above, there are a number of studies that have established a correlation between religiosity and adolescent sexual activity. In these studies, the measures of religiosity and sexual activity vary greatly. The majority of the evidence suggests that strength of religious convictions and participation in religious activities are more important than religious denomination or affiliation in predicting whether or not an adolescent has sex (Ku, Sonenstein & Pleck 1993; Miller & Moore 1990; Thornton & Camburn 1989). Where studies demonstrate important differences by denomination, these differences are most prevalent in sex attitudes and contraceptive use, not first sex (see Brewster et al. 1998 for an exception).

In two separate studies, Thornton and Camburn (1987 and 1989) investigate the effect of religiosity on attitudes about sex and sexual behavior. In their 1987 study, Thornton and Camburn find that church attendance is one of the strongest predictors of restrictive attitudes about sex. They find affiliation with a fundamentalist religion lessens permissive attitudes but has little effect on whether or not teens have sex. In their 1989 study, the authors confirm that both denomination and church attendance affect attitudes about sex, but only church attendance affects whether or not an adolescent has first sex. Thus, they conclude that religious participation is important in determining attitudes and behavior. In a more recent study, Whitbeck and colleagues (1999) use a small, local sample to show that church attendance and importance of religious beliefs have no effect on first sex net of attitudes about sex and other factors. However, religiosity and attitudes are two of the many factors considered in the authors' developmental model of early sex, and thus the relationships between the three factors are not fully explored.

The literature on the role of attitudes in determining adolescent sexual activity often considers the effects of parental attitudes (Fisher 1989; Moore, Peterson & Furstenberg 1986; Musick & Bumpass 1999; Small & Luster 1994). In studies where the adolescents' own attitudes are examined, they are often treated as dependent variables with parental attitudes as the primary covariates (Thornton & Camburn 1987), or they are seen as a mechanism for the transfer of parental attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior (Fisher 1989; Moore, Peterson & Furstenberg 1986). Developmental psychologists describe adolescence as a time when children go through a process of individuation whereby they try to establish their own identity apart from others, including their family (Bios 1967). Thus, it is important to explore adolescents' own attitudes and their effects on sexual behavior net of their parents' attitudes. Using prospective data from a sample of virgins, Whitbeck and colleagues (1999) find that permissive adolescent attitudes about sex predict sexual behavior.

To summarize, the existing literature on religiosity, attitudes, and sex establishes a clear relationship between religiosity and attitudes about sex, but a less clear relationship between religiosity and first sex. This body of work also demonstrates that attitudes about sex affect first sex. The two sets of findings suggest a model of the combined relationship of religiosity and attitudes with sexual behavior. While religiosity should lower the probability of early sex, these effects will be attenuated by attitudes. Attitudes about sex should attenuate the religiosity effect because these attitudes are at a higher level of correspondence with sexual activity than is religiosity. Religious values provide a perspective toward life that should hold for most types of behavior. That is, while some religions may have ideas about the permissibility of adolescent sexual activity, most of their proscriptions can be applied to a number of different behaviors including, but not limited to, sexual activity. On the other hand, attitudes about sex make proscriptions with reference to the specific behavior of interest sex. It is with this specific reference that attitudes about sex correspond more closely with sexual behavior than do religious values. This should make attitudes mediate the effect of religiosity on first sex.

How might sex affect subsequent religiosity? Thornton and Camburn's 1989 study used structural equation modeling to examine two relationships that partially address this question. First, they tested the reciprocal relationship between religiosity and attitudes about sex. They find that religiosity affects attitudes, and attitudes affect religiosity. Second, they tested the reciprocal relationship between religiosity and first sex. They find that religiosity affects first sex, but having sex for the first time does not influence subsequent religiosity. They do not examine the reciprocal relationship between attitudes about sex and sexual behavior.

Though few studies examine the reciprocal relationship between religiosity, attitudes about sex, and sexual behavior (see Thornton & Camburn 1989 for an exception), there is a more substantial, although still relatively young, history of such studies with respect to attitudes, values, and family formation (Bumpass 2000; Lesthaeghe & Moors 2000; Moors 1995; Thomson 2000). From this literature, I borrow terminology to describe the processes at work between attitudes and religious values and sexual activity. The first part of the causal relationship — where religious values affect behavior — can be called the religiosity effect. The second part of the causal relationship, where behavior affects subsequent religiosity, is labeled religiosity adaptation, meaning that the behavior causes the individual to change his or her religious values. The role of attitudes can be conceptualized in the same way — attitude effect and attitude adaptation.

Because premarital sex is against the doctrine of many religions, it seems reasonable to expect that adolescent sex should lead to a decrease in religiosity as those who have sex attempt to reconcile their religiosity and behavior. This postevent adjustment may also apply to attitudes. That is, adolescents with fairly restrictive attitudes toward sex may adjust attitudes to correspond with behavior after having sex. However, another way that events can change attitudes is by providing new information that may sway one's attitude about a given object (Schuman 1995). This new information could be good or bad. Several studies find that male adolescents are more likely than females to have positive reactions to having sex (Guggino & Ponzetti 1997; Martin 1996). While the attitude change associated with first sex may operate in either direction, it seems most likely that it will tend toward more permissive postsex attitudes, especially for males.

Thornton and Camburn (1989) made great progress in accurately representing the causal connections between religiosity and sexual attitudes and behavior. However, their panel data also has shortcomings for addressing these relationships. They use a sample of approximately 900 white Detroit-area mothers and their 18-year-old children in 1980. Mothers were interviewed at five earlier points in time dating back to the 1960s, but children were only interviewed in 1980. This limits their study in several ways. First, because the sample includes only whites from the Detroit area, it is not representative of the entire adolescent population. Next, because children were interviewed at only one point in time (1980), it is not possible to directly measure the effects of their religiosity prior to the time of the first interview. Third, because the authors do not have measures of the child's sexual activity before 1980, they use the child's recall of his or her sexual activity. The literature on the data quality of retrospective event reports indicates that we should be cautious of reporting errors, especially as the duration from the event increases (Wu, Martin & Long 2001). Finally, Thornton and Camburn do not examine the relationship between attitudes and behavior. In addition to these limitations, more than a decade has passed since these authors conducted their research.
- Meier, Ann; Adolesents’ transition to first intercourse, religiosity, and attitudes about sex; Social Forces; March 2003; Vol. 81; Issue 3.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about adolescents’ transition to first intercourse, religiosity, and attitudes about sex.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 24
According to Meier, how does the gender of the adolescent affect his/her attitude toward sex? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

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