Although teenagers feel that waiting to have sex is a nice idea, they believe that hardly anyone does it. In fact, many teens, particularly boys, feel pressure to have sex, and they say drugs and alcohol usually lead to sex — often without condoms.
Past research has found that social influence is associated with behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use among teenagers. A recent study extended this work and investigated whether three types of social influence predict adolescent sexual behavior:
Peer pressure refers to the explicit and direct social pressure to conform to the demands of a particular group to “fit in.” In this case, adolescents might be motivated to have sex (or not) because they think they will be liked better by their friends, or disliked if they don’t conform to the group.
Thinking Your Friends Approve: Injunctive norms are reflected in one’s beliefs about others’ attitudes towards a particular behavior. For example, an adolescent may believe that their friends approve or disapprove of having sex. The friends are not directly telling the teenager to have sex (that would be peer pressure, see above). Rather, injunctive norms operate indirectly; friends and classmates may simply make it known that they think having sex is okay (or not).
Thinking Your Friends are Doing It: Descriptive norms refer to what one believes others themselves are doing. If a teenager believes that their peers are having sex, then they may be more likely to also engage in sex as result of role modeling or imitation. Like injunctive norms, it is a less direct form of social influence than explicit peer pressure.
According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than half of all teenagers in the U.S. have had sex by the time they reach age 18. Unfortunately, teens may lack the maturity and emotional resources to properly manage sexual relationships. It is not uncommon for teens to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as lack of protection or multiple sexual partners.
The CDC reports that half of all newly reported STDs occur in young people between the ages of 15 and 24 and that nearly half of all sexually active high students did not use condoms the last time they had sex. Unprotected sex significantly increases the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or experiencing an unintended pregnancy.
Research suggests that self-esteem is an important factor in determining whether teens are sexually active, but the effect is different between girls and boys.
A number of studies have found a connection between self-esteem and teen sexual activity. For example, one early study found that girls who reported being sexually active had lower scores on measures of self-esteem. What the results did not indicate, however, is whether self-esteem was the cause or a consequence of sex.
One study found that self-esteem had differing effects on sexual behaviors in teen boys and girls:
- Younger girls with lower self-esteem are more likely to engage in sexual activity.
- Teen boys with low self-esteem and less likely to be sexually active.
- Boys who have high self-esteem are nearly 2.5 times more likely to initiate sex.
- Girls with high self-esteem are three times less likely to have sex.
- Half of the boys who had high self-esteem in seventh grade had sex by ninth grade. Of the girls with low self-esteem in seventh grade, 40% had sex by the time they were in ninth grade.
Another study looking at risky sexual behaviors in Nigerian teens found that adolescents with low self-esteem were 1.7 times more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as having sex without a condom, having multiple sexual partners, and having sex in exchange for drugs. Research also suggests that low self-esteem can be a predictor for having sex at an earlier age.
Who Is at Risk
It is important to remember that not all teens with low self-esteem will become sexually active. Conversely, high self-esteem is not necessarily a guarantee that your teen will not become sexually active. In fact, research suggests that high self-esteem may actually make boys more likely to begin having sex.
Kids who have a strong sense of themselves and self-respect will not be immune from sexual urges, but having good self-esteem may help them to handle relationships in more mature ways. Teens who are struggling with their own sense of self-worth may be the most prone to unwise decisions about sex.
De Vries, H., Backbier, E., Kok, G., & Dijkstra, M. (1995). The impact of social influences in the context of attitude, self-efficacy, intention, and previous behavior as predictors of smoking onset. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 237-257.
Borsari, B., & Carey, K. B. (2003). Descriptive and injunctive norms in college drinking: A meta-analytic integration. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 64, 331.
Van de Bongardt, D., Reitz, E., Sandfort, T., & Dekovic, M. (in press). A meta-analysis of the relations between three types of peer norms and adolescent sexual behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Online first.