The longitudinal influence of the psychosocial context: Sexuality and contraceptive use in the transition to adulthood


James-Hawkins, Laurie (2015). The longitudinal influence of the psychosocial context: Sexuality and contraceptive use in the transition to adulthood.


This dissertation research examines attitudes and social norms about sexuality and contraceptive use (herein called the “psychosocial context”) in adolescence and emerging adulthood, using a life course perspective. Specifically, I use both quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate how different psychosocial contexts in adolescence affect one’s outcomes, behaviors, and adaptation to new psychosocial contexts in emerging adulthood. I show that adolescent psychosocial contexts can be used to predict reproductive health outcomes and behaviors in emerging adulthood. In addition, I show how components of the psychosocial context impact the reasons women give to justify their own contraceptive risk-taking. I use a large scale, nationally representative sample from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), and interviews with 45 undergraduate women on a university campus to explore these issues. My findings demonstrate the power of early psychosocial contexts in influencing later behavior, and show that a life course perspective is important when examining the influence of psychosocial contexts on behavior and outcomes. Specifically, using Add Health, I show that Wave I norms and attitudes about sex and contraceptive use are predictive of later reproductive outcomes and behaviors in emerging adulthood, ages 18-24. I measure the psychosocial context in adolescence using factor analysis, by creating groupings of attitudes and norms at different levels of influence (i.e. individual, peer, family, community). I then use the identified factors in a latent class analysis to generate classes with similar psychosocial context profiles at Wave I. Wave I class membership (ages 15-18) is predictive of reproductive, sexual and contraceptive outcomes at Wave III (age 18-24). Classes are significantly predictive of outcomes controlling for socio-demographic factors such as socio-economic status, and race/ethnicity. Qualitatively I use 45 women’s narratives from interviews conducted on the “Mountain University” 1 campus to explore possible mechanisms connecting Wave I norms to Wave III outcomes. I find that women talk about different sources of attitudes and norms in adolescence and describe how the attitudes and norms coalesced into concrete views about their sexuality and contraceptive behaviors. Women’s adolescent views of sexuality and contraceptive use in turn led to their enacting specific strategies to deal with transitions in normative environment, such as the transition to college and the predominant hookup, or causal sex, culture, although women were largely unaware of enacting these strategies. Finally, I look at how the elements of the psychosocial context influence (norms and attitudes) women to use “I just wasn’t thinking” as an excuse for contraceptive risk taking within a cultural context that calls for women to be primarily responsible for pregnancy prevention, but also for their happiness and sexual satisfaction of their partner. Overall, I use a life course framework to trace the development and impact of attitudes and social norms about sexuality on young women’s future choices about sex, reproduction, and contraceptive use. I show that background psychosocial contexts have great influence on how young women deal their sexuality during college. My findings demonstrate the importance of viewing social norms from a life course perspective, so that one can understand the long term influence of one’s normative context in adolescence on their perceptions of their own sexuality, and their risk-taking in sexual encounters.


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James-Hawkins, Laurie

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University of Colorado at Boulder

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