Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 47, Issue 7, pp 1469–1485 | Cite as

High School Context, Heterosexual Scripts, and Young Women’s Sexual Development

  • Jennifer Pearson
Empirical Research


Adolescence is a critical period for sexual development, and previous research demonstrates that school cultures play an important role in shaping adolescent sexual behavior. However, little is known about the role of school context for developing sexual attitudes and sexual sense of self. This study explores how sexual cultures that emerge within high schools shape the sexual development of young women during the transition to adulthood. Using three waves of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a sample of 9th to 12th graders in U.S. schools in 1994–1995 who were surveyed in 1996 and in 2001 when they were 20 to 26 years old (N = 1,017), this study measures school sexual cultures using the aggregated sexual beliefs and behaviors of students within the school. Multilevel analyses are used to explore the association between these school sexual cultures and young women’s sexual attitudes (perceived obstacles to using birth control, guilt and shame about sex, and expectations of sexual pleasure) in adolescence and their sexual experiences (equal initiation of sex with partner and frequent orgasm with partner) in adulthood. Overall, the results suggest that schools play an important role in young women’s developing attitudes toward sex and contraception. High school sexual cultures are also associated with young women’s sexual behavior in adult heterosexual relationships, as young women who attended schools with students who had higher levels of religious attendance or guilt and shame about sex were less likely to report being an equal initiator in their adult relationships. However, the relatively small impact of high school sexual cultures on young women’s sexual experiences in adulthood, particularly in terms of sexual pleasure, suggests that more proximal contexts and relationships may play a more significant role in shaping their current sexual behaviors.


Adolescence Sexuality Sexual development School context Sexual relationships Transition to adulthood 



The research is based on data from the Add Health project, a program project designed by J. Richard Udry (PI) and Peter Bearman, and funded by grant P01 HD31921 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis. Opinions reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the granting agencies. The author would like to thank Anna Mueller, Dara Shifrer, Laura Mauldin, Angela Frederick, Rachel Fish, Carrie Shandra, and Lindsey Wilkinson for their helpful feedback on previous drafts of this article.

Data Sharing Declaration:

The data that support the findings of this study are available from Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but restrictions apply to the availability of these data, which were used under license for the current study, and so are not publicly available. More information about obtaining the restricted-use data are available at

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

The Wichita State University Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviewed this study and determined that the project complies with all the requirements and policies established by the University for protection of human subjects in research (IRB #2213).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyWichita State UniversityWichitaUSA

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