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Demography. 1987 Aug;24(3):323-40.

The influence of the family on premarital sexual attitudes and behavior.

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  • 1Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 48106.


This research has expanded our understanding of the determinants of adolescent sexuality in several directions. We have used a study of mothers and children to construct and estimate a model of the intergenerational transmission of sexual attitudes and behavior. With data collected from both mothers and children, we were able to proceed further than most past research and to consider both the attitudes and behaviors of mothers as reported by the mothers themselves. These data permitted an investigation of the determinants of maternal attitudes concerning adolescent sexuality as well as an examination of the influences of the attitudes and experiences of mothers on the attitudes, perceptions, and behavior of children. Obviously, limiting the study to white families prevents generalization of our findings to other subgroups of the population. The findings demonstrate the importance and relevance of parental and adolescent attitudes in understanding adolescent sexuality. Premarital sexuality is a salient issue to both young people and their parents. There are, however, very important and substantial differences in the attitudes of parents and children. On average, the attitudes of young people today are much less restrictive than those of their parents, reflecting either life cycle differences or the impact of social change. The intergenerational difference is recognized by young people themselves and probably affects the ability of parents to assist their maturing children in adjusting to and dealing with their sexuality--a difficulty likely to be reflected in the relative lack of success sexually active young people have in preventing pregnancy. Our findings also add to the research literature in demonstrating that although children, on average, have more permissive attitudes than their parents, the attitudes of individual parents tend to be reflected in the attitudes of individual children. Children whose mothers have less restrictive attitudes have, on average, less restrictive attitudes themselves. Further, the attitudes of mothers are also reflected in the behavior of their children, so on average, mothers with more permissive attitudes have children who are more sexually active. The influence of maternal attitudes, however, is stronger for children's attitudes than for their behavior. Of course, variability in children's attitudes and behavior--and even their perceptions of maternal attitudes--can only be partially explained by the attitudes of their mothers; but presumably, if the attitudes of other important family members, including fathers and siblings, were known, the prediction of adolescent attitudes would improve.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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