High school students who have never had sex or who decide to abstain after becoming sexually experienced often say their choice is rooted in a fear of negative consequences, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and personal beliefs about the appropriateness of teenage sex, according to a large, cross-sectional survey of Minnesota adolescents.1 Females, regardless of grade and whether they had ever had intercourse, were more likely than males to say a fear of pregnancy and STDs played a part in their decision to be abstinent, and to say they just did not want to have sex. Males who had not yet had sex were more likely than females to say that one reason for their decision was they believed that most students did not have sex. Adolescents selected similar reasons for choosing abstinence whether or not they had ever had sex.
To determine the factors that play a role in teenagers' decisions to abstain from intercourse, the researchers analyzed data from a 1998 Minnesota survey that included ninth- and 12th-grade students. Students were asked if they had ever had sexual intercourse, or "gone all the way," and whether they were still having intercourse. Those who were abstinent were given a list and asked to indicate all reasons for their decision. The list provided 11 reasons: fear of parental disapproval, pregnancy, STDs and getting caught; the perception that most students do not have sex, most of a youth's friends do not have sex and sex is not right for a person the respondent's age; a lack of desire to have sex; a decision to wait until marriage; and a perceived advantage to waiting, taught by parents or learned at school.
Of the 73,464 students in the sample, nearly nine out of 10 were white. Sixty-four percent of males and 68% of females had never had sex; 3% of males and 2% of females were sexually experienced but currently abstinent (i.e., practiced secondary abstinence); and 33% of males and 30% of females were sexually active.
Males who practiced secondary abstinence were significantly more likely than sexually active males to have caused a pregnancy (21% vs. 9%), to be raising a child (25% vs. 11%) or to be raising their own child (10% vs. 4%). Females practicing secondary abstinence were no more likely than sexually active females to have ever been pregnant (11% vs. 12%), to be raising a child (20% vs. 16%) or to be raising their own child (6% vs. 4%).
The most common reasons for abstinence selected by females who had never had sex were a fear of pregnancy (82% of ninth-grade, 77% of 12th-grade students) or of STDs (75% and 61%, respectively). The third most common reason selected by ninth graders was the belief that sex was not right for a person their age (70%), and by 12th graders was a decision to wait until marriage (58%). Among males who had never had sex, only about one in five in each grade cited concern about pregnancy as a reason for their abstinence. Concern about STDs was the most common reason selected by ninth graders (57%) and the second most common reason selected by 12th graders (46%). The most common reason selected by 12th-grade males who had never had sex was a decision to wait until marriage (47%). Half of sexually inexperienced ninth-grade males and one-third of 12th-grade males felt that intercourse was inappropriate for a person their age. The only reason on the list that was selected more often by sexually inexperienced males than females was the belief that most students did not have sex. Fifteen percent of ninth-grade males and 9% of their female peers selected this reason, as did 5% and 2%, respectively, of 12th graders.
Like females who had never had sex, sexually experienced females who abstained most commonly cited a fear of pregnancy (two-thirds of both ninth and 12th graders) and a fear of STDs (about half of both groups). One-third or more of such females were concerned about parental disapproval (40% of ninth-grade, 32% of 12th-grade students) and said they did not want to have sex (33% and 42%, respectively). By contrast, no more than 38% of sexually experienced males in either grade selected any single reason. The most common reasons they cited were fear of STDs (34% of ninth graders and 38% of 12th graders) and parental disapproval (36% and 33%, respectively). Sexually experienced males in 12th grade who were abstinent were more likely than females to say that school had taught them the advantage of waiting; roughly one in five selected this as a reason, compared with about one in 10 females. Males in that grade were also more likely than females to say that most students in their school did not have sex (14% vs. 2%) and that most of their friends did not have sex (15% vs. 8%).
The researchers conducted logistic regression analyses to examine the associations between gender, grade and reasons that students did not have sex. In one set of analyses, they compared the abstinence reasons between sexually inexperienced females and males, and between 12th graders and ninth graders; in a second set, the same comparisons were examined among sexually experienced students.
The researchers found that sexually inexperienced females were significantly less likely than males to say they believed that most students did not have sex (odds ratio, 0.6) and significantly more likely than males to give every other reason. The differential was dramatic for fear of pregnancy (25.7) and more moderate for the remaining reasons (1.2-4.9). Only three abstinence reasons were selected more often by sexually inexperienced 12th graders than by ninth graders: fear of pregnancy, wanting to wait until marriage and not wanting to have sex (1.1-1.4). All other reasons were less likely to be selected by 12th graders than by their by ninth-grade counterparts (0.3-0.9).
Among sexually experienced students who were currently abstinent, females were significantly more likely than males to cite fear of pregnancy (odds ratio, 6.9). They were also more likely than males to lack a desire to have sex, to be afraid of STDs, to be afraid of getting caught, to believe sex was not right for a person their age and to say their parents had taught them the advantage of waiting (1.5-2.1). Ninth-grade students were similar to 12th-grade students in the reasons they selected for secondary abstinence. However, 12th-grade students were less likely than ninth graders to be afraid of getting caught (0.7) and more likely to say that they had a fear of pregnancy and they did not want to have sex (1.5 for each).
The results may not be generalizable to adolescents in other regions of the country or to those who are not students, according to the researchers. However, the findings suggest that adolescents choose to abstain from sex for a variety of reasons, and that sexually inexperienced and sexually experienced adolescents cite similar reasons for choosing abstinence, they said. Intervention strategies "could become more effective if they incorporated these reasons as part of their educational methodology," the authors conclude.
1. Loewenson PR, Ireland M and Resnick MD, Primary and secondary sexual abstinence in high school students, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2004, 34(3): 209-215.