Religious activity linked to delay in sexual initiation

November 05, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

During my children's religious education, the Sunday morning medicine of Mass or catechism was almost always followed by a spoonful of sugar - lunch with our friends at Fuddruckers.

All these years later, it turns out I was right when I suspected that I was simply providing my kids with something - organized religion - they could conveniently reject as young adults.

But they've kept the good memories, I think, of those giant hamburgers and bottomless soft drinks and of time spent with friends and family.

I don't think I could have said so at the time, but I think I was attempting to inoculate my children with more than a love of God on those Sunday mornings.

I was hoping that keeping them close would keep them out of trouble. That the convivial embrace of this extended, makeshift family under the umbrella of faith would keep the children safe.

New research by Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center in Washington, reported in last month's issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows that the more frequent a parent's religious attendance and the more a family participates in religious activities, the more likely an adolescent will delay his or her first sexual experience.

And according to Jennifer Manlove, lead author of the article, this is true regardless of denomination and it is true for all racial and ethnic groups, except blacks.

"The link between religious activities and delayed sex may reflect family beliefs or it may indicate that more closely knit families help reduce early sexual initiation," said Manlove. "That's a finding supported by other research on parent involvement."

That's the good news.

The bad news is, these same kids are less likely to use contraceptives or condoms during their first sexual encounters.

"This follows a pattern that we've seen in the Virginity Pledge research," she said of the movement to get teens to promise not to have

sex until marriage.

"We see the generally protective effect of family religion, but also a link between higher family religion and reduced contraceptive use once those teens are sexually active."

It is just speculation, but it is likely that teens from strong religious families do not prepare for first sex because they don't allow themselves to think of themselves as that kind of person - the kind of person who would violate church teachings so strongly expressed in the home.

"If you show up with a condom, that shows that you planned for it," said Manlove, in an interview.

The fact that the protective nature of family religiosity was true for every group except blacks may, Manlove speculated, reflect additional pressures in the African-American community to become sexually active at a younger age.

"In that case, the family's religious activities aren't going to be enough. The teens will need re-enforcement from other adults in the community," she said.

The other teens require additional messages, too, Manlove said. Parents and religious leaders have to "give a strong, clear message to abstain from sex, but they also need to have a back-up conversation.

"They have to say to their children that if you are going to engage in sex, you need to use protection the first time and every time. These are not mutually exclusive messages."

Teens from religious families may be delaying sex because of the values that are reinforced by their church and their church community.

But, Manlove suggested, the simple fact that church presents a regular ritual, a regular activity, with friends and family may itself be part of the reason these young people are delaying first sex.

"Is it the values? Is it the activities? Is it the social network?" Manlove asked. "It might be a function of all those things.

"We have seen that even things like having dinner together is protective."

In other words, it may be God. Or it may be Fuddruckers. But it is certainly family.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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