Why Do Young Women Abstain From Having Sex?

Three young women smiling.

Understanding Motivations for Abstinence Among Adolescent Young Women: Insights Into Effective Sexual Risk Reduction Strategies” (abstract). Ellen R. Long-Middleton, Pamela J. Burke, Cheryl A. Cahill Lawrence, Naomi H. Amudala. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, Vol. 27, No. 5 (April 2012).

What it’s about: Long-Middleton and her colleagues wanted to know why some adolescent women don't have sex. To find out, they surveyed 70 young women, ages 15-19, from diverse cultural backgrounds. All the women had reported never having had sexual intercourse. The racial makeup of the group was 48.8 percent African American, 25 percent white, 21.9 percent multiracial, 3.1 percent Native American, and 1.6 percent Asian. Twenty-six percent of participants identified as ethnically Hispanic.

The survey took place at a teen health clinic in a northeastern U.S. city.

Why read it: Research shows that pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV can cause major setbacks to the health and well-being of young women, Long-Middleton and her research team write. And, they say, rates of HIV infection and teen pregnancy are higher among young African American and Hispanic women than they are among young white women. The authors say not having sex is the most effective way for young women to avoid these problems. What remains to be learned, and what this study seeks to illuminate, is what motivates young women, including young women of color, to be sexually abstinent.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Young women in the study expressed five broad reasons for abstinence:

Personal readiness. The most frequently cited reason for being abstinent was not feeling developmentally prepared to have sex. One participant said, “I feel that I am not ready emotionally, mentally, or physically.”

Fear. Young women in the study expressed fear about having sex and about dealing with the potential risks. One young woman said she was scared because her mother had gotten AIDS through sex.

Beliefs and values. Comments reflected themes of religion and the importance of a decision to have sex. One woman said, “… no need to rush into something so important and so affecting of my life.”

Partner worthiness. As one young woman put it, “I haven’t met anyone that has made me think about having sex with him. No one has met my personal standards.”

Lack of opportunity. Not having the time or opportunity to have sex also helped young women be abstinent. Young women said things like “I’ve never had the ‘perfect’ opportunity” and “I’ve never had a boyfriend before.”

Most of the participants offered more than one of these reasons for avoiding sex. African American and white participants most often cited personal readiness, while Hispanic young women referred to beliefs and values.

The authors suggest that family- and youth-serving professionals can help young women make informed decisions about sex by helping them examine their personal beliefs, values, life goals, and the characteristics they look for in a worthy partner. Approaches such as motivational interviewing and behavioral skills building, the authors say, could be used to further these conversations.

The authors say it is crucial also to discuss other methods for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections because abstinent young people aren't expected to stay abstinent their whole lives. And finally, the authors urge service providers to be aware that women of any age may be forced to have sex, and to be ready to provide support and counsel in such cases.

Additional references: Look for more articles about abstinence, pregnancy prevention and sexual health in NCFY’s research library.

Listen to "Voices From the Field: Training Youth Workers to Use an Evidence-Based Practice," a podcast about using motivational interviewing with young people.

"Toolkit to Incorporate Adolescent Relationship Abuse Prevention Into Existing Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Programming" addresses sexual coercion.

 Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth, the Family & Youth Services Bureau or the Administration for Children & Families.

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