Although previous research has examined the role that perceptions and attitudes play in influencing adolescent sexual activity, none of these studies have specifically examined how perceptions and attitudes may differ by race and gender. We found that there are important differences among these subgroups that have implications for adolescent behavior and health.
Analyses showed that more than half of White boys and girls were virgins at Wave I, but that less than half of African American girls, and only 28% of African American boys were virgins at Wave I. Because of this disparity, we intentionally included all Wave I youth in our analyses of attitudes, controlling for sexual debut. Since less than a third of African American boys were virgins at Wave I, analyses that examine only virgins transitioning to first sex by Wave II are necessarily biased; virgins would include only a small (and atypical) minority of African American boys. Examining the attitudes and perceptions of all adolescents at Wave I gives additional information essential in developing health promotion strategies.
We found that boys perceived more benefits of having sex compared to girls, regardless of racial background. African American boys perceived greater benefits than White boys, but White girls held more positive perceptions about the benefits of sex than African American girls. Gender differences have been previously reported [20
], but the racial interactions are new and important to note, particularly since greater perceived benefits of sex was the only attitudinal predictor of transition to first sex among African American girls. These findings suggest that candid, sensitive discussions about whether the benefits are worth the risk, and exploring how girls think others would feel about them and how they would feel about themselves, can help encourage teenage girls to delay sexual debut.
Regardless of race, girls were much more likely to perceive shame and guilt with sex than boys. White boys perceived more shame and guilt with sex than African American boys. However, it is interesting that shame and guilt protected White boys and girls equally from sexual debut, but it did not protect African American girls (the variable approached significance but did not reach p≤.05), even though their perception of shame and guilt was greater than that of White boys. It is important for prevention practitioners to recognize these differences in perceptions between girls and boys. It is possible that girls' greater perception of shame and guilt with sex can explain differences in the prevalence of depression for girls versus boys. Previous research has found that girls who experiment with sexual intercourse are three times more likely to be depressed one year later, controlling for covariates, than abstaining girls; there was no parallel increase in depression among boys [5
Shame and guilt appear to act as informal social control mechanisms to delay sexual debut – at least for Whites. We named this factor “shame and guilt” because it represented the following three beliefs: 1) that engaging in sexual intercourse would be upsetting to one's mother, 2) that their partner would lose respect for them, and 3) that the adolescent would feel guilty afterward (see ). We are not recommending that prevention practitioners elicit feelings of shame and guilt; rather, we recommend that they encourage honest discussion about such feelings and validate that waiting to have sex until youth are older is likely the best course to take. We also recommend encouraging parents to clearly convey their expectations about sexual activity and pregnancy; studies suggest that adolescents whose parents communicate expectations about waiting are less likely to have sex [14
Although the pregnancy variable was not a significant predictor of sexual debut, the variable showed a race by gender interaction in cross-sectional analyses with African American boys reporting more shame and guilt with pregnancy than African American girls, and White girls and boys reporting similar high levels of shame and guilt. Less than a third of African American boys were included in the sexual debut model, which may account for the lack of significant effects. Nevertheless, cross-sectional findings suggest that this may be an opportunity to promote sexual health for boys, and especially African American boys, through discussion of how they would feel if they were to get a girl pregnant, and how they might prevent pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control found that African American boys reported greater condom use than other ethnically diverse boys and girls [19
]. It is possible that differences in attitudes between African American boys and girls (compared to similar attitudes of White boys and girls) influences greater condom use.
Several limitations apply to our findings. First, the sample was limited to adolescents' ages 15 years and older, and can therefore only be generalized to this age group. Related to this, less than a third of African American boys and less than half of African American girls were included in the model predicting sexual debut because the rest were not virgins at Wave 1. This, and the much lower sample size, may have contributed to the lack of significant findings regarding attitudes for African Americans. A possible example is the shame and guilt with sex variable, which was significant for both white boys and girls, and which approached significance for African American girls but did not reach significance at p≤.05 (see ).
Second, the information on sexual behaviors is based on self-reported data and thus subject to error. However, audio computer assisted self-interviewing (ACASI) technology was used to increase the probability of accurate reporting [34
]. Third, each construct measured attitudes and perceptions related to sex and pregnancy, but did not account for attitudes relating to sexual behaviors other than vaginal sex (e.g., oral sex). Adolescent virgins may perceive oral sex differently than vaginal sex and may have engaged in such behaviors although they have not made the transition to first vaginal sex [35
]. Fourth, data were collected during 1995 and 1996 and it is not known whether attitudes among the subgroups may have changed.
Further research is needed to test whether reinforcing protective attitudes can be effective in delaying sex. Given the present findings, we conclude that it is important to conduct sexual health classes in gender and race specific groupings. Tailoring prevention programs by gender, and also by race, may help adolescents more freely discuss sexual issues and make decisions that are more relevant and salient to their lives. Although schools and other settings may have difficulty implementing separate programs tailored to race, inclusive programs that take a multifaceted approach could be just as effective, while decreasing the burden of implementing separate programs. Additionally, these data show that it is important to target African American boys at an early age, since more than two thirds were sexually experienced by age 15.
Although the concept of shame and guilt may be provocative to the health community, more research is needed to understand why the anticipation of shame and guilt is a powerful protective factor for Whites, but not for African Americans. It is possible that differences in perceptions of shame and guilt with sex, as well as subsequent sexual initiation rates are influenced by different social norms. More research is needed to understand these influences. More research is also needed to examine whether adolescents should be encouraged to delay sex until some optimal age, after which negative health outcomes are attenuated, and whether optimal age differs by gender and race. Such research is essential for providing guidelines to pediatricians, prevention practitioners, and parents to promote the health and well being of adolescents.