What Impacts Native American Middle Schoolers’ Decisions to Have Sex?

A young Native American boy.

Factors Associated With Early Sexual Experience Among American Indian and Alaska Native Youth” (abstract). Christine M. Markham, Stephanie Craig Rushing, Cornelia Jessen, Travis L. Lane, Gwenda Gorman, Amanda Gaston, Taija Koogei Revels, Jennifer Torres, Jennifer Williamson, Elizabeth R. Baumler, Robert C. Addy, Melissa F. Peskin, and Ross Shegog. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 57, No. 3 (2015).

What it’s about: As with any group of young people, Native American youth make decisions about when to first have sex based on multiple factors in their lives. Some of these factors are protective, meaning they are linked to delaying the timing of a person’s first sexual experience. Others are risk factors linked to earlier sexual initiation. To better understand these connections, the authors examined the individual-, family-, and peer-level characteristics of 537 Native American youth ages 12 to 14. Participants were recruited from 27 study sites across Alaska, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest.

At the individual level, Markham et al. looked at biological characteristics like age, psychological characteristics such as educational aspirations and whether youth intend to have sex, and behavioral characteristics, including substance use and being a victim or perpetrator of dating violence. At the family level, they assessed characteristics such as family structure, poverty, parents’ education levels, and communication about sex and related topics. At the peer level, the researchers primarily focused on what youth believe their friends think about sex.

Why read it: Previous studies have looked at the attitudes of Native American teens when it comes to gender roles, sex, and teen pregnancy. However, most have studied youth older than 14 or those living in Tribal communities or regions, the authors write. This study provides insight into the lives of younger Native American youth in a variety of geographic regions to inform programs seeking to promote sexual and reproductive health from an early age.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Participants were less likely to have ever had sex if they:

  • Tended to avoid risky situations
  • Did not drink alcohol
  • Did not intend to have sex in the next year, or intended to remain sexually abstinent

On the other hand, youth were more likely to have had sex if they:

  • Were older
  • Had less accurate knowledge about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Were victims or perpetrators of dating violence in the past year

Having friends who believed they should wait until they are older to have sex was not significantly linked to sexual experience when all factors were taken into account. Neither was having parents who knew their child’s friend group. These factors may still have an indirect influence on young people’s behaviors, the authors say, like encouraging youth to make less risky decisions if their parents are aware of their friendships and whereabouts.

Markham et al. suggest that programs focus on interventions that help youth evaluate their intentions on whether or not to have sex and reduce their exposure to risky situations and alcohol use. Few sexual health interventions exist specifically for Native American youth, they add, so programs may need to develop or adapt available evidence-based interventions to make them culturally appropriate.

Additional references: Learn more about Native American youth and sexual and reproductive health in our digital library.

Read how one Hawaii-based agency modified a teen pregnancy prevention program to reflect Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian cultures.

Discover how Native American youth prefer to learn about HIV and other STIs.

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

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