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How childhood experiences influence sexual behaviour in later life

  • Date

    Tue 5 Feb 19

Laurie James-Hawkins

Childhood experiences influence how sexually active female students are when they get to university years later a study has found.

Although the ‘hookup culture’, which is said to be prevalent in many American universities, means casual sex is widely accepted and even expected as part of the university experience, whether women participate or not is largely dependent on the way they were brought up and in particular the influence of their parents and friends.

Dr Laurie James-Hawkins, from our Department of Sociology,  set out to determine whether social norms experienced during high school years influence what students do at university. She interviewed 18-24 year-old women at a large university in western America and found they fell into five broad categories – the religious, the relationship seekers, the high school partiers, the late bloomers and career women – dependent on their opinions about sex and their past experiences.

“We found women’s sexual behaviour at university was heavily influenced by the norms they learned in adolescence and the sexual experiences they had in high school. Each of the five groups reported different experiences in high school, with for example the religious group shunning casual sex, while the partiers had generally experimented with casual sex in their teenage years. This had an impact on the way they behaved at university and the coping strategies they adopted as they made the transition into adulthood in an environment where casual sex is widely accepted.

“The findings are in line with life course notions of linked lives, which suggest the individuals with whom we share our lives have a direct impact on the way our own lives pan out.”

For the research, which has been published in Advances in Life Course Research, Dr James-Hawkins interviewed 45 women, asking them questions about their up-bringing and their sexual history, both at high school and at university. 

“This research clearly demonstrates the hookup culture is experienced differently by different groups of women and that women engage in the hookup culture with varying degrees of positivity. For some, casual sex is used to bolster their own participation in relationships, whereas for others it is an activity they feel ashamed of. 

“I found the group that seemed to be most well-adjusted and able to cope with university life were the career women, who on the whole had parents who talked openly about sex and birth control. They used these messages from adolescence, framing sexuality as normal and natural, to guide their participation in casual sex at university, without compromising their focus on their studies and future career goals,“ added Dr James-Hawkins.

Of the other groups, those from religious families tended to have one sexual partner at high school, continued with that relationship through university and so avoided casual sex.
The relationship seekers had engaged in casual sex at high school, but were ashamed about doing so. They continued to have casual sex at university, in the hope of finding a romantic relationship. The high school partiers came from a background of teen pregnancies and engaged in casual sex while they were at school but by the time they moved to university, they quickly shunned casual sex in favour of a romantic relationship. The late bloomers came from families where sex was not discussed. They showed no interest in sex at high school but soon after arriving at university they were fully participating in the casual sex culture.

Dr James-Hawkins is currently doing a smaller-scale study in the UK. The full paper can be seen here.