Moving Beyond Age: An Exploratory Qualitative Study on the Context of Young African American Men and Women’s Sexual Debut

  • Yzette Lanier
  • Jennifer M. Stewart
  • Jean J. Schensul
  • Barbara J. Guthrie


African American youth continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. Early sexual debut has been identified as a major determinant of HIV risk. However, emerging research suggests that the overarching context in which first sex occurs may have greater implications for sexual health than simply age alone. The purpose of this exploratory, qualitative study was to better understand the broader context of African Americans’ sexual debut. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 African American men and women aged 18–24 years. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the data. The mean age at sexual debut for the sample was 15.4 (SD = 3.3), and youth framed their sexual debut as positive (50%), negative (30%), and both positive and negative (20%). The majority of youth initiated pre-sex conversations with their partners to gauge potential interest in engaging in sexual activity, and all youth utilized at least one HIV/sexually transmitted infection and pregnancy prevention method. However, most youth failed to talk to their partners prior to sex about their past sexual histories and what the experience meant for their relationship. Key differences emerged between youth who framed the experience as positive and those who framed the experience as negative or both positive and negative in terms of their motivations for initiating sex (i.e., readiness to initiate sex, pressure, and emotionally safety) and post-sex emotions (i.e., remorse and contentment). Findings provide further support for examining the broader sexual context of African American’s sexual debut. A more comprehensive understanding of sexual debut will aid in the development and tailoring of sexual risk reduction programs targeting African American youth.


HIV African American youth Sexual debut Context USA 



This study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (R25MH087217). The authors would like to extend their appreciation to the participants for their time and for sharing their stories.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All study procedures were approved by local institutional review boards.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© W. Montague Cobb-NMA Health Institute 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of NursingNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.School of NursingJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA
  3. 3.Institute for Community ResearchHartfordUSA
  4. 4.School of NursingNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA

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