Peer Acceptance and Sexual Behaviors from Adolescence to Young Adulthood


Well-liked adolescents are more likely than their peers to engage in sexual behaviors, which may place them at higher risk of negative outcomes such as sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. Yet, little is known regarding whether peer acceptance in adolescence predicts sexual outcomes in young adulthood. Understanding developmental links between peer acceptance and sexual outcomes will inform theories of how peers affect health and can help identify targets for health promotion efforts. Using longitudinal sociometric data from 1878 participants in the PROSPER study (54% female, 82% White, mean age = 11.79 at baseline), the present research examined the association of adolescent peer acceptance, reported annually from grades 6–11, with adolescent and young adult sexual outcomes. Well-liked adolescents were more likely to have sexual intercourse by age 16. At age 19, well-liked individuals were more likely to have had sexual intercourse but were less likely to be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection. For boys but not girls, peer acceptance was linked to having more past year sexual partners in young adulthood. Adolescent peer acceptance was not associated with other young adult sexual outcomes, such as sex without a condom or casual sex. Overall, well-liked adolescents demonstrated healthy sexual development into young adulthood, despite a higher likelihood of sexual initiation early in adolescence. Findings demonstrate the importance of peer acceptance for healthy development into young adulthood and suggest that well-liked adolescents may be appropriate targets for peer-led sexual health education programs.

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Grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA018225) and the National Institute of Mental Health (P30 MH052776 and T32 MH019985) supported this research. The analyses used data from PROSPER, funded by grant R01 DA013709 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and co-funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding organizations. This manuscript's data will not be deposited.

Authors’ Contributions

R.W. collaborated on the research questions, conducted the statistical analyses, and helped to draft the manuscript. D.A.K. collaborated on the research questions, developed the analysis plan, and helped to draft the manuscript. E.S.L. collaborated on the research questions and helped to draft the manuscript. M.E.F. helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rose Wesche.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The procurement of the data required for this study was approved by the Iowa State University and Pennsylvania State University institutional review boards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. All youth and families were informed about and consented to participate in this project.

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Wesche, R., Kreager, D.A., Feinberg, M.E. et al. Peer Acceptance and Sexual Behaviors from Adolescence to Young Adulthood. J Youth Adolescence 48, 996–1008 (2019).

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  • Peer acceptance
  • Sexual behavior
  • Sexual health
  • Gender differences