Date of this Version
J Adolesc Health. 2018 February ; 62(2): 226–233. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.09.007.
Purpose: Sexual activity is a normative part of adolescent development, yet early sexual debut and sex with multiple partners undermine health and well-being. Both structural (e.g., poverty) and social (e.g., norms) characteristics of neighborhoods shape sexual risk taking, yet scholarship remains focused on urban areas. Thus, this study explores sexually permissive attitudes and sexual risk taking across a wider expanse of neighborhood types. Methods: Among 8,337 nonsexually active respondents in Wave I (1994–1995 [ages 11–18]) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), a hierarchical linear model and a hierarchical generalized linear model were used to estimate the effect of neighborhood type and permissive sexual climate on youths’ sexual debut, age at debut, and lifetime number of sexual partners by Wave III (2001–2002 [ages 18–26]), controlling for individual, familial, and peer factors. Results: Sexual climates varied in overall permissiveness and internal consistency both across and within neighborhood types and were linked to increased sexual risk taking. Compared with youth from upper middle class white suburbs, the odds of sexual debut and the number of partners were highest among youth from rural (black and white) neighborhoods; youth from almost all other neighborhood types initiated sex earlier. Conclusions: Early sexual debut in adolescence is a public health issue with immediate and long-term implications. Adolescence unfolds in neighborhood environments, the characteristics of which may spur youth into such risk taking. Continued scholarship on sexual risks should consider further variations in the geographic distributions of such risks to investigate more fully their consequences.