Advertisement

Adolescents' reasons for having sex: gender differences

      To the Editor:
      Efforts to promote safer sexual behavior and prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) rarely focus on adolescents' motivations to engage in sexual activity. Traditional research on sexual and gender-role socialization [
      • DeLamater J.
      Gender differences in sexual scenarios.
      ,
      • Hyde J.S.
      Where are the gender differences? Where are the gender similarities?.
      ] suggests that females are more likely to engage in sexual behavior in order to promote emotional intimacy and to please or keep their partner, whereas males are more likely to engage in sex purely for their own physical pleasure. A growing number of recent studies are directly assessing adolescents' specific motivations for sexual activity, and these findings suggest a less straightforward story. Quantitative studies conducted with African-American, urban females recruited from adolescent health clinics [
      • Paradise J.E.
      • Cote J.
      • Minsky S.
      • et al.
      Personal values and sexual decision-making among virginal and sexually experienced urban adolescent girls.
      ,
      • Rosenthal S.L.
      • Von Ranson K.M.
      • Cotton S.
      • et al.
      Sexual initiation Predictors and developmental trends.
      ] indicate that young women's reasons for having sex frequently relate to their own emotional or physical feelings rather than in response to pressures from their partners. These findings are echoed to some extent in Tolman's qualitative work [
      • Tolman D.
      Dilemmas of Desire Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality.
      ] which has explored female adolescents' sexual desires and pleasure. In a study of ethnically mixed male and female high school students, Eyre and Millstein [
      • Eyre S.L.
      • Millstein S.G.
      What leads to sex? Adolescent preferred partners and reasons for sex.
      ] found common reasons for sex across gender, including love for the partner and “time was right.” Only males, however, mentioned sexual arousal as a reason for sex.
      In general, there has been little systematic research on gender differences in adolescents' reasons for having sex. The extant research has been conducted primarily in clinics and schools and frequently relies on convenience samples. We investigated adolescents' reasons for having sex across multiple dimensions related to both external pressures and internal emotional or physical motivations as part of a community based study on social networks and sexual health in a high risk urban neighborhood in Northern California. The study was based on a probability sample of African-American adolescents and their close friends. Data reported here are based on face-to-face interviews with the 145 sexually active African-American adolescents (90 males; 55 females) in our sample: youth ranged in age from 14 to 20 years, with a median age of 17 years.
      Participants were given a list of reasons why some youth may choose to have sex, and were asked to identity which reasons were true for them. Females in our sample endorsed two primary reasons for having sex: “Having a boyfriend you love” (80%), and “feels good/satisfy sexual desires” (82%). No females endorsed items related to social or economic pressures (“so boyfriend wouldn't break up with you,” “to be more popular,” “to get food, money, drugs or a place to stay,” or “because your friends are having sex”). Somewhat surprisingly, only two females (3.6%) endorsed “in order to feel more accepted/loved” as a reason that they have sex. For males, the most commonly endorsed reasons to have sex were “sexual desire/feels good” (89%), followed by “having a girlfriend that they love” (66%). Unlike females, however, males also endorsed having sex in order to maintain or strengthen their sexual/romantic relationship [“so girlfriend wouldn't break up with you” (14%), “in order to feel more accepted/loved” (22%)]; for social reasons [“to be more popular” (23%), “because your friends are having sex” (10%)]; and for economic reasons [“to get food, money, drugs, or place to stay” (13%)]. There were significant gender differences on almost all reasons to have sex: Having boy/girlfriend you love (χ2 = 3.46, p < .05); so boy/girlfriend will not break up with you (χ2 = 8.73, p < .01); to feel more accepted/loved (χ2 = 9.32, p < .001); to be more popular (χ2 = 15.01, p < .001); because friends are having sex (χ2 = 5.86, p < .05); to get food, money, drugs or place to stay (χ2 = 8.00, p < .001) (df = 1, 145 for all analyses). Importantly, no significant gender differences were found for having sex because it feels good/satisfies sexual desire (χ2 = 1.44, not significant).
      Our findings challenge the assumption that females are motivated primarily to have sex in order to feel cared about or in order to maintain their relationship, and that males are generally motivated to have sex for pleasure. We suggest that such a view reflects an artificial dichotomy, and that intervention approaches that do not address both males' and females' emotional and physical desires for sex may fail to respond to the diversity of motivations for sex even within relatively homogenous ethnic communities. The general lack of endorsement of social or relationship pressures as motivations for sex in our sample may have come about because explicit “peer pressure” is more salient for the initiation of sex and, therefore, is less relevant for our sexually active sample. Alternatively, the social pressures that adolescents experience to engage in particular behaviors may be subtle and are not recognized by youth as “peer pressure.”
      Most classroom and group-based pregnancy and STI prevention programs teach resistance skills to adolescents to help them combat explicit peer and/or partner pressure to engage in sexual-risk behavior. While we do not question the importance of teaching negotiation and resistance skills to adolescents, our findings suggest that some adolescents may not view social pressures as highly relevant to their sexual decision-making. As has been shown in other areas of adolescent health risk behavior, changing social norms may be more effective than focusing on resistance to peers [
      • Hansen W.B.
      • Graham J.W.
      Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents Peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms.
      ]. It is worth noting that, because physical coercion was not asked about in this study as a possible reason for having sex, these data do not directly address the issue of “date rape” and other forms of physical coercion. Our findings, considered together with the small extant literature in this area, point to the need for further in-depth research on males' and females' motivations to have sex. Such research would ideally utilize a community-based sampling strategy while also relying on qualitative interview methods in order to better capture the complexities and subtleties of sexual decision-making and the role of external and internal motivations in those processes. This research also may employ interview techniques that allow for specific sexual event analyses that more accurately reveal recalled reasons for participating in past sexual episodes as opposed to traditional methods of assessing generalized reasons for sex.
      Learning about males' and females' motivations to have sex in particular cultural contexts should be an integral part of safer sex intervention efforts. Community-specific information can be used to guide the framing of curricula promoting safer sex practices. Some of adolescents' reasons for sex provide opportunities to enhance the salience of safer sex messages, e.g. how fears regarding STI's or pregnancy may in some cases undermine intimacy and pleasure. Other reasons may provide additional challenges for safer sex messages, such as if sexual pleasure is the primary reason and the adolescent perceives or experiences condoms as diminishing pleasure [
      • Catania J.A.
      • Coates T.J.
      • Greenblatt R.M.
      • et al.
      Predictors of condom use and multiple partnered sex among sexually active adolescent women Implications for AIDS related health interventions.
      ]. Adolescent health professionals in clinical practice should assess adolescents' reasons for having sex—along with other health-risk and health-promoting behavior—in order to increase the likelihood of healthier behavior on the part of their adolescent patients. By understanding the adolescent's reasons for sex, practitioners will be able to tailor their interventions by emphasizing various aspects of risk reduction techniques (e.g., focus on strategies for increasing pleasure during condom use), thus increasing the likelihood of compliance. These interactions with adolescents may be greatly aided by brief training in motivational interviewing [
      • Miller W.R.
      • Rollnick S.
      Motivational Interviewing Preparing People for Change.
      ], an approach with wide utility currently being integrated into the training of physicians and other health professionals. Motivational interviewing techniques can provide adolescent providers with guidance in asking questions aimed at assessing their adolescent clients' specific motivations for having sex within their cultural and community contexts, which may or may not follow classic gender-based patterns. Once the adolescent's motivations are better understood, the next step is to develop strategies with adolescent clients that promote healthier sexual decision-making and stand a better chance of success than recommendations developed without an understanding of motivations for their sexual behavior.

      References

        • DeLamater J.
        Gender differences in sexual scenarios.
        in: Kelley K. Females, Males, and Sexuality Theories and Research. State University of New York Press, Albany1987: 127-137
        • Hyde J.S.
        Where are the gender differences? Where are the gender similarities?.
        in: Buss D.M. Malamuth N.M. Sex, Power, and Conflict. Oxford University Press, New York1986: 107-118
        • Paradise J.E.
        • Cote J.
        • Minsky S.
        • et al.
        Personal values and sexual decision-making among virginal and sexually experienced urban adolescent girls.
        J Adolesc Health. 2001; 28: 404-409
        • Rosenthal S.L.
        • Von Ranson K.M.
        • Cotton S.
        • et al.
        Sexual initiation.
        Sex Transm Dis. 2001; 28: 527-532
        • Tolman D.
        Dilemmas of Desire.
        Harvard University Press, Boston2002
        • Eyre S.L.
        • Millstein S.G.
        What leads to sex? Adolescent preferred partners and reasons for sex.
        J Res Adolesc. 1999; 9: 277-307
        • Hansen W.B.
        • Graham J.W.
        Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents.
        Prev Med. 1991; 20: 414-430
        • Catania J.A.
        • Coates T.J.
        • Greenblatt R.M.
        • et al.
        Predictors of condom use and multiple partnered sex among sexually active adolescent women.
        Sex Res. 1989; 26: 514-524
        • Miller W.R.
        • Rollnick S.
        Motivational Interviewing.
        2nd edition. Guilford Press, New York2002