Current Theories Used to Understand Sexual Behavior

Theories that help us understand and predict sexual behavior in young people generally have been from social psychology. They include the theory of reasoned action (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980), social learning theory (Bandura, 1989; Bandura, 1992) and more recently, theories like Information, Motivation and Behavior theory (Fisher & Fisher, 1992) and the AIDS Risk Reduction Model them (Catania, Kegeles & Coates, 1990). These theories have much in common with earlier theories, and might even be thought of as combining). The elements of these theories include a motivational component (consequences, attitudes, etc.) and a skill component (efficacy). Often these theories have been used to help understand condom use (Catania, Coates & Kegeles, 1994; Fisher, Fisher, Williams & Malloy, 1994; Fisher, Fisher, Misovich, Kimble & Malloy, 1996), but they may be less applicable to postponing sexual activity.

What the Theories Fail to Address

These theories are problematic, because they assume that the key aspects of sexual behavior are cognitive. In fact, sexual behavior is different from other behaviors because it is dyadic, physiological, emotional, culturally constrained and can be coerced. One additional problem is that postponing sexual activity is not a behavior, but the absence of behavior.

So to understand what is involved in postponing sexual behavior we must look at everything we know about early sexual activity. First of all, when we ask young sexually active women why they had sex without contraception on a particular occasion, most report that they don’t know, it just happened (Brown & Kirby, 1994). This suggests that they are not perceiving themselves as active agents in the sexual encounter. They have no cognitive explanation for what happened or no ability to express it. They may feel they were “carried away” by emotions or desires.

What else do we know about early sexual activity? From surveys of adults, it is clear that large proportions of women (perhaps 1 in 4) and substantial numbers of men (15%) report that in childhood and early adolescence they were forced to participate in unwanted sexual activity (Erickson, 1991); (Finkelhor, 1990); (Shrier, 1998). Further, we know that those experiencing sexual abuse begin having voluntary sex earlier than those not experiencing abuse (Browning, 1997). So early sexual activity is often unwanted or coerced.

Older partners may represent a more implicit kind of coercion. In our study, students in 19 ethnically diverse middle schools in an urban area were surveyed in sixth grade (n=2829, response rate 68%). Only 5% had ever had sex. Half (57%) of all the respondents had never had a serious boy/girlfriend, 36% reported that their oldest boy/girlfriend was less than two years older than they and 7% reported a partner two or more years older. While only 7% of these children reported having a boyfriend or girlfriend who was two or more years older than they were, 2/3 of those reporting that they had had sex, reported having an older boyfriend or girlfriend. Also almost 1 in 5 of those with an older boyfriend or girlfriend had had sex. This was as true for the boys as for the girls. In other analyses students who report older boy/girlfriends also report more unwanted sexual advances and more sexually experienced friends. Thus, in sixth grade, most sexual activity involves a partner who is older and much of it may be unwanted by the sixth grader. An older partner has status and resources that may make it difficult for the sixth grader to refuse their advances. Girls may see many advantages to having an older boyfriend, such as status among their friends, benefits like having a car or gifts, and the perceived “maturity” of the boyfriend (Doyle, 1996; Phillips, undated). Yet it is precisely these benefits that are likely to motivate the girl to do sexual things that she might otherwise hesitate to engage in.

There are at least four ways that early abuse or forced sexual experiences can increase sexual risk in young adolescents. Sexual abuse or coercion means that someone else does things that you don’t want and you have no power to stop them. Such abuse may give the teen the message that he/she doesn’t really “own” his/her body. Severe abuse also results in dissociation, that is, avoidance or blocking out the experience. This makes it harder for teens to learn a new or different approach to sex. Teens may use alcohol to dull the pain of abuse, and such use makes it more difficult for them to resist sexual advances and may give the message that they are “looking for sex.” It is also possible that those who have been abused will be attracted to older partners, as a way of seeking love or reliving an abusive experience to make sense of it.

So sexual activity in the early teen or pre-teen years, instead of being cognitively controlled and mutually agreed upon by same age partners, is often confusing to the young teen, unwanted, the result of pressure from an older partner or a consequence of earlier abuse. Most young people have little understanding of why they engage in such activity. Those teens who engage in early sexual activity are also more likely to be engaging in early alcohol or drug experimentation and to be putting themselves in situations in which they are with older youth and more sexually experienced youth.

Last modified: February 7, 2011