General Articles

Evaluating Early Adolescents’ Perceptions of Sexual Abstinence

Source: Mary A. Ott and Elizabeth J. Pfeiffer, “‘That’s Nasty’ to Curiosity: Early Adolescent Cognitions about Sexual Abstinence,” Journal of Adolescent Health 44.6 (June 2009): 575-581.

This study was designed to evaluate early adolescents’ attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and values regarding sexual abstinence. Researchers conducted exploratory interviews with 22 young people ages 11–14 who were identified as “high-risk individuals” based on the high incidence of adolescent pregnancy and STDs within their community. Participants included 16 females and six males, all from low-income families, the majority (18) were African-American.
The interviews assessed participants’ comfort level toward the topic of sexuality, their biological understanding of sexuality, and their perceptions of sexual abstinence. Based on their attitudes and perceptions, participants were divided into three groups. Those that viewed sex as distasteful, and had a limited understanding of sexual behaviors and the potential health concerns were put into the “That’s Nasty” group. Participants who had an increased interest in sex and sexuality and more developed understanding of the health risks involved were deemed “Curious.” And those participants who viewed sexuality as a normal part of life and demonstrated increased knowledge about STDs and pregnancy were labeled “Normative.”
Key Findings:
  • Participants’ perceptions of sexual abstinence and the health risks involved in sexual activity were directly correlated to their age; younger participants generally had negative attitudes toward sexual activity and limited understanding of the health concerns, while older participants demonstrated more positive attitudes toward sexual activity and had a slightly more developed understanding of the risks involved.
  • Perceptions of sexual activity varied based on gender; female participants emphasized the social stigma attached to sexual activity, while male participants spoke of engagement in sexual activity as beneficial for one’s social status.
  • Researchers observed a shift from fear-based reasoning about sexual abstinence to social reasoning across a short age range; participants in the “That’s Nasty” group were fearful of the potential risks involved with sexual activity such as STDs and pregnancy, while Normative participants assessed sexual abstinence from a social perspective and considered sexual activity in terms of “readiness.” Curious participants represented the transition group between “That’s Nasty” and Normative groups in terms of reasoning about abstinence.
  • In all three groups, participants understood that abstinence meant not engaging in sexual intercourse. However, it was difficult for participants to categorize specific behaviors (e.g. kissing, oral sex, etc.) as either “abstinence” or “sex.”
Researchers hoped to gain insight into how to develop sexuality education programs that recognize the process by which early adolescents’ cognitions about sexuality evolve. Based on participants’ responses, they concluded that educational programs should be modified to coincide with adolescents’ developmental conditions and that young people may benefit from different messages about sexuality based on their age. With this in mind, the researchers concluded that because individuals in the “That’s Nasty” group viewed sex as distasteful, “it is likely that information about healthy sexuality, pregnancy, and STI prevention will neither be comfortable nor perceived to be relevant, and health education messages will be lost.” Further they suggested that “adolescents who are initially curious about sex may also be uniquely open to education that fosters healthy models of adolescent sexuality.”
SIECUS analysis:
SIECUS agrees that it is important to present young people with age and developmentally appropriate information about sexuality. The SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education were created by a task force of educators, child development specialists, and medical experts, and provide a series of age-appropriate, medically accurate messages for school-aged students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. We believe that it is important for comprehensive sexuality education programs to begin early in order to foster an open and honest dialogue about and understanding of sexuality.  
We were also interested in the finding that 15 out of the 22 participants were confused by the term “abstinence.”  We believe that one of the problems with today’s abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is that they fail to sufficiently define abstinence for young people. If we expect young people to understand abstinence, and more importantly if we expect them to use abstinence as a method of preventing unintended pregnancy and STDs, at the very minimum we must make sure we are defining it clearly.