Different aspects of religiousness have different effects on teenage women's sexual behavior and risk perceptions, according to an analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health).1 For example, the stronger a young woman's spiritual connection, the fewer partners she is likely to have had in the recent past, the lower her awareness of possible consequences of intercourse and the greater her perception of how much she would suffer as a result of an unintended pregnancy or HIV infection. Level of involvement in a religious community has generally similar effects, but the influence of adherence to conservative religious beliefs and affiliation with a conservative religion is at best only marginally significant. None of these religious dimensions influences a teenage woman's likelihood of ever having had sex.
To assess the association between religiousness and sexual responsibility, the analysts examined data on 3,356 women who participated in the 1994-1995 wave of the Add Health survey. On average, members of the nationally representative sample were about 16 years old. Fifty-nine percent of the young women were white, 23% black, 6% Hispanic and 11% members of other racial or ethnic groups.
Responses to a variety of questions about religious beliefs and practices allowed the analysts to construct the following variables: personal devotion (reflecting how often a woman prays and the importance she attaches to religion), personal conservatism (measuring whether she considers her religion's scriptures divine and free of mistakes, and thinks of herself as a born-again Christian), participation in a religious community (as determined by frequency of attendance at religious services and other activities sponsored by a place of worship) and institutional conservatism (the relative fundamentalism of an individual's religion, as measured on a standard, validated scale).The analysts used linear and logistic regression to identify associations between each of these variables and sexual activity, perceptions of risk and contraceptive use.
The analyses revealed that the greater a woman's personal devotion, the lower her number of sexual partners in the previous year (coefficient,-.10), the lower her assessment of the risks associated with having intercourse (-.08) and the more she thought she would suffer if she became pregnant unintentionally or she acquired HIV (.10). Additionally, a marginally significant finding suggested that as a young woman's level of personal devotion increased, the likelihood that her partner controlled contraceptive use decreased.
Similarly, as a woman's involvement in a religious community increased, her number of partners in the last year fell (coefficient,-.08) and her perception of potential suffering in the event of unintended pregnancy or HIV infection rose (.09). In contrast to personal devotion, however, frequency of attendance at services or other activities was positively associated with risk assessment (.07) and responsible contraceptive use (.12).
Neither personal nor institutional conservatism was significantly associated with any of the sexual and reproductive health-related measures studied. However, level of personal conservatism had a marginally positive relationship with assessment of potential suffering, partner's control of contraceptive use and the likelihood of unprotected intercourse. Only one variable was even marginally associated with institutional conservatism: This dimension of religiousness may have a negative influence on a young woman's recent number of partners.
Of all of the variables examined, only being sexually experienced showed no relationship to any measure of religiousness.
The analysts comment that their findings "parallel previous research on adolescents revealing links between personal devotion, self-preservation, and a decreased tendency for self-destructive forms of venturesomeness." Likewise, their results are consistent with earlier work showing "greater capacity for impulse control and restraint among adolescents who are involved in [a] religious community." Moreover, the findings "may reflect success on behalf of some religious communities in educating adolescents" about sexually responsible behavior. Overall, the analysts conclude, the results may help inform faith-based initiatives aimed at reducing teenage women's chances of acquiring HIV or becoming pregnant unintentionally.--D. Hollander
1. Miller L and Gur M, Religiousness and sexual responsibility in adolescent girls, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2002, 31(5):401-406.