Purpose Researchers to date have primarily used investigator-generated lists of health concerns to elicit teens' perceptions of sexual risk, thereby limiting our understanding of what teens consider the most important risks and benefits of sexual behavior. The goal of this study was to determine what teens identify as the risks and benefits of sexual activity from their own perspective.
Methods Participants included a large sample of 418 ethnically diverse 9th graders (mean age 14.1 years, SD = 0.45; 45.7% males) in two suburban high schools participating in a longitudinal study of teens' perceptions about sex. Using open-ended questions, teens were asked to list good and bad things about having sex. The questions were placed in context through a scenario describing two similar-aged, non-virginal teens in a three-month heterosexual relationship who have vaginal sex once with each other. Responses were thematically coded.
Results In addition to listing well-known health risks of sex such as pregnancy (74.4%) and sexually transmitted diseases (45.7%), teens generated a number of social risks of sexual activity including having a negative impact on the relationship (15.8%); getting caught or parental disapproval (13.6%); negative impact on social status (e.g., damaged reputation, the girl being called a slut; 7.9%); and negative emotions (e.g., regret, feeling guilty, loss of self-esteem; 5.0%). Girls were more likely than boys to generate responses about risk to the relationship and to social status (χ2 = 21.35, df = 1, p ≤ .001 and χ2 = 6.64, df = 1, p ≤ .01 respectively), whereas boys were more likely to comment on getting caught (χ2 = 5.18, df = 1, p ≤ .05). The teens also mentioned a number of benefits to having sex, with most responses focused on social benefits including improving the relationship (38.3%); having fun or getting pleasure (26.3%); gaining sexual experience (7.2%); and improving social status (e.g., bragging rights, being better liked by guys; 3.6%). Gender differences were noted, with girls more likely to comment that sex will improve the relationship (χ2 = 5.04, df = 1, p ≤ .05), and boys more likely to indicate that having sex is fun or pleasurable (χ2 = 3.80, df = 1, p ≤ .05) and that it increases one's social status (χ2 = 4.79, df = 1, p ≤ .05).
Conclusions Strong evidence now exists that social aspects of sex, both risky and beneficial, are salient to teens. Gender differences in perceived social risks and benefits warrant consideration in counseling efforts.
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