By Laura Horne
“The health of individuals is highly contextual, impacted by many environmental factors,” says Aubrey Spriggs Madkour. “CHS places a focus on local environments with the understanding that it’s impacted by broader, global forces.”
This idea influenced her research on early initiation of sexual intercourse among adolescents (currently at press in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence).
“Western countries vary widely in adolescent pregnancy and STD infection rates, despite similar levels of adolescent sexual activity,” says Madkour. “Therefore, the relationship between adolescent sexual experience and other outcomes may also vary across nations.”
Guided by Problem Behavior Theory, which concludes that risk behaviors tend to cluster together and have common psychosocial root causes, Madkour and researchers explored the association between early adolescent sexual initiation and substance use, positive parent communication, and school attachment in the United States, Finland, France, and Scotland.
The researchers combined data from 15-year-old participants in the 1997/98 Health Behavior in School-Aged Children survey and the 1996 United States Add Health survey.
They observed a positive association between substance abuse and sexual initiation among both boys and girls across nations. School attachment showed a negative association to sex initiation among boys and girls across nations. Positive parent communication also showed a negative association to sex initiation, but only among female adolescents.
“Although sexual intercourse initiation during adolescence is statistically normative across many nations, in the United States, sexual activity is typically viewed as a problem behavior,” says Madkour, whose work was inspired by similar research from Amy Schalet, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Although Madkour believes that further research is needed to determine why these associations exist, her findings were consistent with Schalet’s study regarding the characterization of early sexual initiation as a problem behavior.
“Consequences of early sexual initiation seem to be less threatening to families in Europe than in the United States,” says Madkour. “This research suggests that adolescent experience of sexuality is going to be culturally bound. The way that social institutions approach early sexual experience has very important implications for sexual health.”