Female adolescents and onset of sexual intercourse: a theory-based review of research from 1984 to 1994

J Adolesc Health. 1997 Sep;21(3):147-56. doi: 10.1016/S1054-139X(97)00004-9.


Purpose: To review a decade of research on the correlates of early onset of sexual intercourse among female adolescents in the United States, using Social Cognitive Theory as a framework for classification.

Methods: Forty-nine studies published in peer-reviewed journals between 1984 and 1994 were reviewed and their findings coded by two independent coders.

Results: Findings indicate that most of the studies emphasized quantitative methodologies, using cross-sectional designs and univariate statistical analyses. Many studies lacked a theoretical framework or conceptual model to guide their investigations. When evaluating empirical findings, 61% of the studies found environmental correlates and 47% found biological factors (e.g., age and pubertal development) to be significantly associated with early initiation of sexual intercourse.

Conclusion: These findings raise important questions about the quality of research on adolescent sexuality, as well as its relationship to the development of risk-reduction programs which tend to focus mainly on intrapersonal factors (such as attitudes, knowledge, and expectancies.

PIP: A comprehensive review of the recent research literature on the onset of sexual intercourse among female adolescents in the US was conducted, with emphasis on concepts included in Social Cognitive Theory. Of the 49 studies published in peer-reviewed journals in 1984 to 1994, 59% used cross-sectional sampling strategies and 35% used a longitudinal design. Coding of empirical results indicated that 61% of studies identified environmental correlates and 47% found biologic factors to be significantly related to early age (under 18 years) at first intercourse. Notable was a general absence of scientifically established theoretical frameworks or conceptual models to serve as a basis for data collection and analysis. Also widespread was a view of onset of sexual activity as an isolated, single, dependent variable rather than a multifaceted, multidetermined behavior. Despite the importance of personal meanings assigned to sexual activity, few studies used qualitative methods. Also revealed were gaps between research and practice. Despite the demonstrated centrality of environmental determinants of premarital sexual activity, the main focus of educational programs remains individual behavioral change.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior*
  • Age Factors
  • Coitus
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Psychology, Adolescent
  • Research / standards
  • Research Design*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Sexual Behavior / statistics & numerical data*