Adolescent Female Sexuality

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Adolescent Female Sexuality








Public opinion of adolescent female sexuality in American society remains limited by the emphasis on adolescent sexual behaviors and the perceived negative outcomes of these behaviors (namely pregnancy). This understanding is also mired in racial stereotypes and myths about poor and working-class African-American, European-American, Latina, Native-American, and Asian-American girls. Although teen pregnancy and birth rates have steadily declined since 1990, the teen birth rate is two to ten times higher in the United States than in other industrialized nations (United Nations 2005). This appears to justify the U.S. government’s spending of millions of dollars on programs to prevent adolescent pregnancy, particularly by promoting abstinence-only programs through the Adolescent Family Life Act passed in 1981 and amendments to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. On the other hand, in 1994 the National Commission on Adolescent Sexual Health concluded that “society can enhance adolescent sexual health if it provides access to comprehensive sexuality education and affordable, sensitive, and confidential reproductive health care services, as well as education and employment opportunities” (p. 4). While this call for a broader framework than “just say no” was endorsed by forty-eight organizations across a wide spectrum of ideological and religious beliefs, it neglects the complexity of the sexuality of young women of different racial and class backgrounds, as well as the ways in which their ability to act in self-protective ways may be constrained by certain aspects of their culture; by historical, social, political, and economic forces; and by racist stereotypes.


Explorations of adolescent sexuality are inextricably linked with the constructions of race, gender, and class that permeate the larger society and become embodied in the sexualized image of the black girl. As Joyce Ladner pointed out in her 1971 landmark study of African-American girls in St. Louis, “the total misrepresentation of the black community and the various myths which surround it can be seen in microcosm in the black female adolescent” (p. xxxiii).

The ubiquitous image of the promiscuous black teen mother has always belied the reality. The black girl in the United States is held accountable for the politically convenient crisis of teen pregnancy, even though more babies are born to white adolescent mothers (Roberts 2000). In addition, teen birth rates for African-American females fell by 41 percent, from 116.2 to 68.3, between 1990 and 2002, more than for any other ethnic group (see Table 1). It is true that more African-American high school girls report being sexually active (60.9 %) than do their Latina (46%) and European-American counterparts (43%) (CDC 2003). As a result, the black girl may be considered sexually irresponsible, though in 2000 the National Family Growth Survey found that African-American females aged fifteen to nineteen were also more likely (32%) than Latinas (23%) or European-American females (20%) to have a partner who used a condom. Moreover, the impact of the historical sexual oppression and violence visited upon enslaved African women, and later projected on and internalized within their daughters, has never been presented in the popular media or in government reports as a basis for the disproportionate rate of cumulative AIDS cases among young African-American and Latina females (83% in 2000). While further research in this area is still needed, there is evidence that some African-American female rape survivors recall stories of the rape of their ancestors during slavery, which may contribute to their sense that they do not deserve and cannot expect to be protected from sexual assault (Wyatt 1992). Popular media also does not acknowledge the fact that homicide, often at the hands of an intimate partner, was the second leading cause of death among African-American females aged fifteen to twenty-four in 2002 (CDC 2002). Sexual violence and coercion may also contribute to the fact that the percentage of African-American females having sexual intercourse before age thirteen (6.9%) is more than double the percentage of European-American females (3.4%) (CDC 2003).


In contrast to young African-American women, the middle-class European-American adolescent female has been

Table 1.
Teen Births and Birth Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin of Mother in the United States, 1990 and 2002
SOURCE : Adapted from Ventura, Stephanie J., Abma, J.C., Mosher, W.D., Henshaw, S.K. Recent trends in teenage pregnancy in the United States, 1990–2002. Health E-stats. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Released December 13, 2006.
% Change–18–18–31+31
Birth Rate    
% Change–28–33–41–17

portrayed as a paragon of asexual virtue, a parallel myth that originated during slavery. As the historian Nell Painter points out, “the sexually promiscuous black girl … represents the mirror image of the white woman on the pedestal. Together, white and black woman stand for woman as Madonna and as whore” (Rose 1998, p. 177). Unlike the African-American female who must counter the myth with representations of herself as chaste and superhuman to counteract her mythology, the liberated European-American adolescent female affirms her sexuality by daring to admit she enjoys sex. If the European adolescent female appears too sexual, she too may be marginalized, but the pejorative myth more commonly associated with the urban black girl does not pertain to all white girls, only those designated as “sluts” among them (White 2002).

Beginning in 1997, anecdotal newspaper headlines proclaiming that suburban middle-school girls were having oral sex provoked the anxiety of many European-American parents (Lewin 1997). In 2002, 12 percent of European-American females, 9.9 percent of Latinas, and 5.8 percent of African-American females aged fifteen through nineteen had had oral sex but not vaginal sex (Mosher 2005). These data signaled an alarm that young middle-class European-American women might be choosing oral sex to prevent pregnancy but not protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (Remez 2000). In contrast, in the early 1990s African-American females were targeted for the distribution of Norplant, a long-term hormonal contraceptive that was taken off the market amid controversy in 2002 because it prevented pregnancy without protecting women from HIV infection (Roberts 2000). Thus, when middle class white girls have sex, there is concern for their health, but when poor and young women of color have sex, there is fear that they will get pregnant.

Socioeconomic class and level of education may be better predictors of early sexual debut and pregnancy for both African-American and European-American young women (Singh 2002). Middle-class European-American girls may have resources, such as access to abortion and adoption, available to them that minimize the consequences of their sexual activity, compared to poor and working-class young women of all races.


Despite the diversity in racial-identity and national origin that exists among Latinas, data on adolescent sexuality are typically reported for all Latinas as a group. Thus, differences in experiences that might be attributed to skin color or national origin cannot be assessed. In 1996 Deborah Tolman proclaimed that the black girl has been replaced by the more euphemistic “urban girl,” who might also be Latina and is undoubtedly poor, but whose sexuality is still perceived as a singular threat to American values and the economy.

In 2000, Latina adolescents had a lower pregnancy rate than African-American teens (133 vs. 154 per 1,000 women), but they had the highest teen birth rate of all ethnic groups (94 per 1,000 women). The high Latina teen birth rate has been attributed to changing and conflicting cultural norms associated with assimilation, with discrimination in education and employment that contributes to poverty and reduces access to health care, with religious prohibitions on contraceptive use and abortion, and with the lack of culturally and linguistically competent health services, but it can also be traced to a history of class and race-based social policies.

Soon after the Hyde Amendment (passed by the U.S. Congress in 1976) severely restricted public funding for abortion, Rosie Jiménez, who could not afford an abortion from a licensed provider, became the first young woman to die from a back alley abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Her face soon adorned posters to repeal the Hyde Amendment, making her a martyr for the Latina reproductive rights movement. This was not the first time the government sought to control the reproductive choice of Latinas, however. It is estimated that one-third of Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age living in the mainland United States and Puerto Rico underwent government authorized forced sterilizations between the 1930s and 1970s (Lopez 1993).


Native Americans represent the smallest racial/ethnic group in the United States, though there are more than 554 federally recognized tribal groups. Despite 1997 guidelines requiring all federally funded research to collect and disseminate data on all racial/ethnic categories, most national studies report data only for whites, blacks, and Hispanics/Latinos (Burrhansstipanov 2000). When data are available, Native Americans are not identified by their tribe and many are counted in other categories due to their mixed heritage. An 1837 Presidential Order calling for the violent removal of the Cherokee Nation to Oklahoma (commonly known as the Trail of Tears) has been compounded through a paper trail that removes the possibility of their descendants being properly acknowledged and counted.

The wholesale removal of Indian children from their families to boarding schools, which was initiated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the purpose of eradicating indigenous cultures, resulted in many young people being physically and sexually abused up until the 1970s.

Young Native women who must rely on the federal Indian Health Service have also been subjected to mass

sterilizations without informed consent, and to extreme restrictions on their access to safe reproductive health care, according to a General Accounting Office report spear-headed by Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota. A former Northern Cheyenne chief tribal judge heard the case of two fifteen-year-old Native girls who were sterilized during what they were told were tonsillectomy operations (Smith 2000), and thirty-six Native women under age twenty-one were sterilized in an Indian Health Service hospital between 1972 and 1974 (Akwesasne 1974).


Like their Native American counterparts, young Asian-American women are underrepresented in research reports on adolescent sexuality and reproductive health. Based on the available national data, Asian-American adolescent women have lower pregnancy and birth rates compared to other young women, though the variation across specific Asian ethnic groups frequently goes underreported. For example, despite the popular image of young Asian women as the “model minority,” according to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (2005), Laotian young women are reported to have the highest teen birth rate (19%) of any racial or ethnic minority group in the state of California in 2000.

Reminiscent of the African women and girls who experienced sexual abuse during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, many young immigrant women in the United States are the victims of modern-day sexual trafficking. The image of women of Asian descent as passive and servile geisha girls, mail-order brides, or sexual exotics is reflected in the high rates of sexual trafficking of young women from some of the poorest Southeast Asian countries (Hynes 2000).


Adolescence is a time for young people to explore and establish their sexual identities. Societal and cultural homophobia and heterosexism—and the related discrimination that ensues—can place young people who show signs of, or are perceived as showing signs of, same-sex attraction at increased risk for violence, mental illness, and substance abuse. Young lesbians of color may be at particular risk for rape, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth of color also risk family rejection and violence, as indicated by a survey in which 61 percent of LGBT youth reported they had been victims of violence from family members (Transitions 2002). LGBT youth of color may also experience bullying and harassment in school and in the community because of both racism and their sexual orientation.

Adolescent sexuality has been framed by the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in the public media, in social policies, and in program interventions. A full understanding of adolescent sexuality requires more complete and specific data within and across ethnic groups to correct the myths and stereotypes that continue to demonize, erase or censor adolescent female sexuality. Also necessary is an analysis of how the mechanisms of oppression based on race, gender, class and sexual orientation undermine adolescent sexual and reproductive health. Only through these types of efforts can all adolescents living in America have the opportunity to reconstruct their own sexual identities and exercise their reproductive choice in safe and loving ways.

SEE ALSO Forced Sterilization; Forced Sterilization of Native Americans; HIV and AIDS; Latina Gender, Reproduction, and Race; Motherhood; Reproductive Rights; Sexuality.


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Lynn Roberts