By Peter J. Smith

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 24, 2009 ( – A new study from Marquette University has found that religious attitudes toward sexuality, parent-based sexual education and intact two-parent households have a positive influence upon youth in their sexual practices and the onset of first sexual intercourse.

Researchers took a nationally representative sample of 3,168 men and women ages 15-21 years old from a 2002 National Survey of Family Growth and obtained the data from 60-90 minute interviews with participants from the 2002 survey.

The study's findings confirmed previous research literature, which suggests “religiosity” – defined by the authors as a set of institutionalized beliefs, doctrines and rituals, and ethical standards for how to live a good life – is “a protective factor that appears to contribute to decreased sexual risk behaviors.”

According to the study, those who viewed religion as “very important” reported an average of 1.9 lifetime sexual partners and on average began sexual activity at 17.4 years. In contrast, those who viewed religion as somewhat important or “not important at all,” began their first sexual activity at 16.9 years and had an average of 2.9 lifetime sexual partners.

However, researchers found that high religious attitudes toward sexuality (RAS) “appeared to be the most protective religiosity variable in terms of decreasing sexual risk.”

RAS had the greatest influence for youth remaining virginal by 21 years – an effect greater than just frequent attendance of church services or religious values.

Among those who valued religion as “very important” 20 percent were still virgins by age 21; among those who attended church services frequently, 25 percent of participants reported they were still virgins by 21 years.

But those who had high “religious attitudes on sexuality” reported the highest rate of virginity by 21 years and the highest rate of delayed first sex. 34 percent of these youth remained virgins by 21 years, and the average onset of sex began at 18.8 years.

By contrast, researchers found that only 8 percent of those with low religious attitudes toward sex were still virgins by 21, and began their first sex on average at 17.0 years old – just about the same time as those who did not value religion (16.9 years).

However, parents and an intact two-parent household also have an enormous effect on children and the choices they make in regards to sex, researchers found.

“Those adolescents who lived in a two-parent family from birth to the age of 18 were 14 percent less likely to ever have had sex compared to those who did not and had significantly fewer lifetime sexual partners” researchers reported.
Of youth with parents who raised them with a “just say no” attitude toward pre-marital sex, 31 percent remained virgins until 21 years, and the mean age of sexual debut for the group was 17.4 years. For youth, who “did not learn to say no,” having their parents involved was also beneficial: 29 percent remained virginal until 21 years, although the average age of first sex for this group was 17.1 years.

Just parental involvement in children's sexual education and voicing their expectations for their children in regards to sex was superior in reducing the rate of risky sexual behaviors and onset of first sex than formal sex education. Researchers found that the topic most brought up by parents with their children was “how to avoid having sex,” but the study found primarily that “speaking with parents about abstinence was associated with decreased sexual risk behaviors.”
Youth who had only formal-based sexual education were far more prone to engage in sexual behaviors than their peers who had the involvement of their parents in sex-education. Of those trained in “abstinence and abstinence-plus” sex-education 26 percent remained virginal by 21 years, and on average began their sexual debut at 17.6 years. Those without any abstinence-component to sex education had only 25 percent remain virginal by 21 years, and began having sex at 17.1 years.

“It is important for parents to make it explicit that they do not approve of adolescents engaging in sexual activity,” researchers concluded. “This 'simple' practice of letting one's child know about expectations for their sexual behavior has been shown to be efficacious.”

“Further, the influence of parental education about avoiding intercourse was strengthened when there was a close relationship between the parent and the child.”

The researchers conclude that formal sex-education in the United States – even abstinence-based education – has thus far failed on its own power to address rampant sexual promiscuity and high numbers of sexual partners among youth. A new approach is needed, but the study's findings indicate that integrating religiosity and close parent-child relationships into sex-education may be the most promising avenues for fixing the problem.

The results and conclusions of the study are contained in a paper called “The Association of Religiosity, Sexual Education, and Parental Factors with Risky Sexual Behaviors Among Adolescents and Young Adults” written by lead researchers Kristin A. Haglund and Richard J. Fehring.


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