Three Essays on the Cultural Context of Adolescent Romantic Relationships and Sexual Behavior


Soller, Brian (2013). Three Essays on the Cultural Context of Adolescent Romantic Relationships and Sexual Behavior.


The transition into adolescence brings increased involvement in romantic and sexual relationships for most youth. However, sociologists have only recently begun to examine the developmental consequences of early romantic involvement. And while much research has focused on adolescent sexual intercourse, sex is most often narrowly conceptualized as a form of risk-taking in these studies. While informative, conceptualizing adolescent sexual behavior purely in terms of risk limits the understanding of the wider impact of adolescents’ sexual activity on their development and personal well-being. Integrating theoretical insights from perspectives on culture, gender, social networks, and identity, this dissertation examines adolescent romantic relationships and sexual behavior using data from the first two waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). I focus on both the dynamics of early romances as well as the mental health consequences of romantic involvement and sexual intercourse among adolescents. First, I consider whether school-based sexual double standards—differing standards of sexual permissiveness among boys and girls—alter the association between sexual intercourse, gender, and adolescent mental health. I measure one particular aspect of the sexual double standard by quantifying within-school differences in boys’ and girls’ perceptions of the social benefits of sexual intercourse. I find that girls who had sexual intercourse are more likely to report severe depression as the sexual double standard in a school increases. Conversely, boys who engaged in sexual intercourse with one or more non-romantic partners are more likely to report high self-esteem as the sexual double standard increases. Second, I integrate insights from cultural sociology and differential association/social learning theories to explain how cultural and structural features of friendship groups influence adolescent romantic relationship inauthenticity—the extent of incongruence between one’s thoughts/feelings and actions within romantic contexts. I use sequence analysis and linear regression to test whether adolescents experience greater romantic relationship inauthenticity when the ordering of events within their ideal romantic relationship scripts (e.g., holding hands, saying “I love you,” having sexual intercourse) diverges from sequencing of events within their friends’ ideal romantic relationship scripts. I also test whether this association varies according to adolescents’ level of interaction with friends and the overall popularity of their friendship groups. Results indicate romantic relationship inauthenticity increases as one’s ideal script diverges from the scripts of one’s friends. I also find that being attached to popular friends accentuates this association. Finally, integrating insights from cultural sociology and identity theory, I explore the mental health consequences of adolescent romantic relationship inauthenticity by measuring its association with numerous mental health outcomes (e.g., severe depression, suicide ideation, etc.). I find high levels of romantic relationship inauthenticity increase the risk of poor mental health, but only among girls.



Adolescent Romantic Relationships

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Soller, Brian

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The Ohio State University

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