Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 45, Issue 5, pp 986–1002 | Cite as

The Enduring Significance of Skin Tone: Linking Skin Tone, Attitudes Toward Marriage and Cohabitation, and Sexual Behavior

  • Antoinette M. LandorEmail author
  • Carolyn Tucker Halpern
Empirical Research


Past evidence has documented that attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation are related to sexual behavior in adolescence and young adulthood. This study extends prior research by longitudinally testing these associations across racial/ethnic groups and investigating whether culturally relevant variations within racial/ethnic minority groups, such as skin tone (i.e., lightness/darkness of skin color), are linked to attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation and sex. Drawing on family and public health literatures and theories, as well as burgeoning skin tone literature, it was hypothesized that more positive attitudes toward marriage and negative attitudes toward cohabitation would be associated with less risky sex, and that links differed for lighter and darker skin individuals. The sample included 6872 respondents (49.6 % female; 70.0 % White; 15.8 % African American; 3.3 % Asian; 10.9 % Hispanic) from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The results revealed that marital attitudes had a significantly stronger dampening effect on risky sexual behavior of lighter skin African Americans and Asians compared with their darker skin counterparts. Skin tone also directly predicted number of partners and concurrent partners among African American males and Asian females. We discuss theoretical and practical implications of these findings for adolescence and young adulthood.


Marriage Cohabitation Sexual behavior Skin tone Adolescents Young adults 



This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by Grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website ( No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.


Halpern’s effort was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant R01-HD57046; C. T. Halpern, Principal Investigator) and by the Carolina Population Center (Grant 5 R24 HD050924, awarded to the Carolina Population Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development).

Author Contributions

AL conceived of the study, participated in its design and interpretation of the data, performed the statistical analyses, and drafted the manuscript; CH participated in the interpretation of the data analyses and editing of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Conflicts of interest

The authors report no conflict of interests.

Ethical Approval

Not applicable.

Informed Consent

Not applicable.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antoinette M. Landor
    • 1
    Email author
  • Carolyn Tucker Halpern
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Human Development and Family ScienceUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Maternal and Child Health, Gillings School of Global Public HealthUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

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