Strong Religious Views Decrease Teens' Likelihood of Having Sex

Teens' Attitudes Towards Sex Hold More Sway than Religious Views

Findings in Brief:


Teens-particularly girls-with strong religious views are less likely to have sex than are less religious teens, largely because their religious views lead them to view the consequences of having sex negatively. According to a recent analysis of the NICHD-funded Add Health Survey, religion reduces the likelihood of adolescents engaging in early sex by shaping their attitudes and beliefs about sexual activity.

The study also found that parents' religious beliefs and attitudes toward sex did not directly influence teens' decisions to have sex. Rather, parents' attitudes toward sex seemed to influence their teens' own attitudes toward sex, and indirectly, their teens' behavior.

When teens do have sex, their beliefs about the consequences of sexual activity become more permissive-meaning more positive or favorable-but their religious views do not change. In particular, adolescent girls who had sex reported that they were more positive about having sex in the future. However, the greatest predictor of whether teens would have sex-regardless of their religious views or attitudes-was whether or not they were dating.


Sexual intercourse places teens at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy. The information provided by the study may prove important for health researchers and planners devising programs that help prevent teens from engaging in sexual activity.

"A better understanding of why religious adolescents are less likely to engage in early sexual intercourse may help in designing prevention programs for this behavior," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD.

Study Publication:

Social Forces, March 2003

Reason for the Study:

To better understand the connection between adolescents' religious beliefs and practices, their attitudes about sex and the probability of first sex, and to find out whether having sex for the first time subsequently influences religious attitudes and practices.


Earlier studies have found that strength of religious beliefs and participation in religious activities are more important than religious denomination in predicting whether a teenager has sex. While previous research has examined religious and sexual beliefs, and how they relate to sexual activity, most previous research was unable to distinguish the effects of religious attitudes and practices on sexual activity from the effects of sexual activity on religious attitudes and practices. This study uses information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a comprehensive survey of 90,000 seventh through twelfth graders. The survey measured the effects of family, peer group, school, neighborhood, religious institution, and community on behaviors that promote good health. Detailed information about the survey is available at Web Site Policy.

Study Details:

Ann M. Meier of the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed information collected during 1995 and 1996 from the NICHD-funded Add Health Survey. The analysis focused on responses from a smaller group of adolescents within the larger study: 4,948 adolescents ages 15 to 18 who were virgins when they first responded to the survey. Adolescents were interviewed twice, with a year between the interviews. The researchers asked the teenagers about their participation in religious activities and the importance of religion in their lives, their beliefs about how having sex would affect them and people close to them, and whether they were in a dating relationship. One parent for each teenager-usually the mother-answered questions on his or her attitude toward the adolescent having sex.

Findings in Depth:

Religious beliefs influenced whether adolescents will have sex, especially for girls. However, such beliefs only had a minor influence on whether boys had sex. As might be expected, for both girls and boys, more permissive attitudes -meaning more positive or favorable-towards sex increased the likelihood that they would have sex. Having sex did not affect boys' or girls' religious beliefs. After having sex, however, girls' attitudes about sex were likely to become more positive or favorable.

The study also found that teen boys are more likely to have positive attitudes about sex, so that having sex doesn't significantly change their attitudes, as it does girls'.

Another finding is that adolescents' own religious and sexual attitudes were more important predictors of their subsequent sexual behavior than were their parents' attitudes toward adolescent sex.

"Parents' religious and sexual attitudes don't directly affect their children's decision to have sex, but they do influence the formation of their children's own attitudes toward sex," says Meier.

Study Strengths:

All potentially sensitive parts of the interviews were conducted through an audio computer program so that the teens could answer honestly without fear of interviewer disapproval. The year-long interval between interviews reduced the possibility of adolescents making errors in recalling events and feelings.

Study Limitations:

The study cannot distinguish whether sexual experience directly changed girls' attitudes about having sex or if their change in attitude reflected a way to justify their having had sex.

This study was limited to adolescents ages 15 and older, and the study's findings may not apply to younger adolescents.

Finally, this study reports only on short-term effects of religious beliefs on sexual attitudes and of first sex on sexual attitudes and religious values - within a year of first sex. The researcher does not know the long-term effects of either. Findings from a third interview with the same survey participants will be available this year.

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