Removing the "risk" from adolescent sexual behavior: An intersectional analysis of adolescent sexual empowerment

Date of Completion

January 2010


Psychology, Social|Health Sciences, Public Health|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare|Gender Studies




For young men and women, sexual experimentation is an important part of adolescence. In spite of the potential positive aspects of sex, most of the adolescent sexuality discourses in the US view any and all adolescent sexual behavior as "risky." Through the development of an agentic model, this study offers an alternative to traditional, risk-focused conceptions of adolescent sexual behavior. The agentic model examines the processes through which adolescents become sexually empowered (i.e., choosing to engage in safe sex behaviors and experiencing sexual pleasure), considering both individual agency and contextual factors. In addition, an intersectional analysis is used to explore the degree to which gender and racial/ethnic variations exist among adolescents in terms of their sexual empowerment. The agentic model is tested using data from Wave 1 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). OLS and binary logistic regression models reveal that agency positively and significantly impacts sexual empowerment, leading to increased contraceptive use and greater sexual pleasure. For all adolescents, greater contraceptive self-efficacy increases the likelihood of contraceptive use, though the magnitudes of the effects vary by intersection. In addition to self-efficacy, other dimensions of agency affect contraceptive use among white females (attitudes towards pregnancy) and Latinas (attitudes towards contraceptives). Moreover, results indicate that in terms of pleasure, agency is an important part of the empowerment process for those with structurally lower social positions. For Black males, Latinos, white females, and Latinas greater intellectual self-esteem increases pleasure, while greater contraceptive self-efficacy and less favorable attitudes towards pregnancy decrease pleasure among Black females. Conversely, for advantaged groups, like white males, contextual factors are most important and agency is a nonfactor in experiencing pleasure. Taken together, results show that a one-size-fits-all approach to understanding adolescent sexuality is not effective, as factors differentially impact young women and men from different intersectional locations. This research furthers our understanding of adolescent sexuality and additionally, contributes to both agentic and feminist intersectional bodies of work. Further, the results of this study may guide policy makers, health advocates, and school administrators in decisions concerning the implementation of effective sexuality education programs and policy. ^