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Research Summaries

All Research Summaries

Reason for Hope: A Review of Research on Adolescent Religiosity and Sexual Behavior

Chapter Two from Keeping the Faith

Original article authored by Brian L. Wilcox, Sharon Scales Rostosky, Brandy A. Randall, and Margaret Laurie Comer Wright

This summary includes the following sections:


In this report, the authors present some historical data on adolescent religiosity, set the context for recent research on this topic, discuss some of the theoretical and methodological issues raised by the research, and review 50 studies published between 1980 and 2000 that examine the relationship between religion and adolescent sexuality.

Although religion appears to be a significant factor in the lives of many adolescents in United States, specific beliefs and practices appear to change over time and may vary by age, gender, and race. According to recent surveys, about 90% of all adolescents say they belong to some religious group and almost all say they believe in a higher power. However, the number of teens who actually participate in religious activities or attend services with regularity is much lower. (Gallup and Bezilla, 1992).

While there is no single source of data providing long-term information on adolescent religiosity, research indicates that since the early 1950s, the number of teens who attend weekly religious services has decreased. However, the number of teens who say they believe in a higher power has remained almost constant since the same era. In general, younger adolescents attend worship services more regularly than older teens. Girls are more likely to attend services and activities and are also more likely to place a greater importance on the role of religion in their lives than do boys.

Data from Monitoring the Future (Johnston, Bachman, and O'Malley, 1999) indicates that while Caucasians showed higher religious service attendance than their African-American counterparts from 1976 to 1981, the trend has since reversed. Further, African-American teens across all age groups have always reported that religion is of greater importance to them than have their Caucasian counterparts.


Approach: Measuring Religion and Religiosity

The task of measuring religion is complicated, and there has been little uniformity across studies with respect to the measures used. Although most religious scholars agree that religiosity is multidimensional (i.e., comprised of more than one component), few studies of religiosity and adolescent sexual behavior have used multidimensional measures of religion. In addition, many of the studies reviewed here are cross-sectional, meaning the participants complete the survey or interview only once, giving us only a "snapshot" of their lives.

Longitudinal studies, where participants are surveyed perhaps three to four times over a period of months or years, allow researchers to get an idea of how the participants change over time and how the relationships between the variables, such as religiosity and sexual behavior, change over time. Cross-sectional studies also do not allow us to say whether one variable CAUSES another to change or exist, only that the two variables are somehow related, or correlated. These two shortcomings in the methods of the studies reviewed here weaken the conclusions that can be made from the findings, and all findings should be regarded with some caution.


Findings from Studies Examining Religiosity and Adolescent Sexual Behavior

Fifty studies were selected for this review of research on religiosity and sexuality based on the following criteria. Studies had to be school- or community-based, had to have a sample size of at least 100 participants, and had to be published in a peer-reviewed journal between 1980 and 2000. Also included were two studies from the 1970s that greatly influenced later research.

Of the 50 studies, 11 were multi-dimensional, containing more than one item addressing religion. While it is difficult to compare the studies due to inconsistencies between them, general findings indicate that religiosity was associated with later initiation of intercourse and less frequent intercourse. Some interesting specific findings include:

  • In one study, religiosity didn't predict frequency of intercourse, but more frequent intercourse was correlated with adolescents' decreased religiosity, suggesting that sexual activity may affect religiosity, just as the opposite is true (Benda and Corywn, 1992).

  • A study by Zelnik and colleagues (1981) showed that while higher religiosity predicted later initiation of and less frequent intercourse, it was not related to contraceptive use or pregnancy rates. Likewise, another study examining data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found no association between contraceptive use and religiosity (Bearman and Brückner, 2001).

  • Finally, one study of mainly white participants indicated that religiosity was related to RISKIER sexual behaviors including numerous sexual partners and lack of contraceptive use.

In many studies, only one item about religion was included in the survey instrument used to collect data. Most often, the item addressed the denomination of the student (i.e. Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, etc.), the frequency of attendance at religious services, or the importance of religion to the adolescent. Some general findings follow:

  • Eighteen studies looked at the relationship between religious denomination and sexual behavior. The most consistent findings from these studies indicate that black and white Catholic or fundamental Protestant females initiate sexual intercourse later than their counterparts who affiliate with another denomination or who do not affiliate with any religion.

    Findings also show that Protestant females are less likely to use contraception when they do engage in sexual activity, and for Catholics, these findings are mixed. The findings to date for male sexual behavior are too inconclusive to make generalizations.

  • The relationship between attendance at religious services and sexual behavior was examined in 25 studies. In summary, more frequent attendance is associated with:

    1. more conservative sexual attitudes and less frequent intercourse,

    2. later initiation of intercourse for white males and for females across racial/ethnic groups, and

    3. decreased contraceptive use for females and increased use for males.

  • Five studies asked about the importance of religion in the adolescents' lives. The results here are inconclusive. Two studies showed an association between greater importance of religion and a delay in first intercourse, one showed that boys who said religion was very important were more likely than others to have had recent sexual activity, and one failed to show any association between the importance of religion and condom use.

  • Six studies looked at other aspects of religion and the relationship with sexual behaviors. The main findings here suggest that while religious youth, especially Catholics or fundamental Protestants, are more likely to delay first intercourse, they are less likely to use contraception when they do have intercourse.


Future Directions of Research

Here, the authors describe some of the most prominent limitations of the research reviewed in this report, offer some explanations for these limitations, and discuss some practical implications from the research.

  • First, while many of the findings here support the hypothesis that religion plays a protective role regarding adolescents and sexual behavior, numerous studies did NOT find such an association.

  • The frequency of the use of cross-sectional designs (where participants are surveyed at only one point in time) does not allow for a complete understanding of the relationship between adolescent sexuality and religiosity. It is likely that sexual behaviors influence religiosity as much as vice-versa, but this relationship can only be confirmed with longitudinal research, where participants are surveyed at various points over time.

  • Because the relationship between religion and sexuality was not the main focus of most of these studies, there was a lack of theory guiding the questions relating to adolescent religiosity. Consequently, the role of race and ethnicity, the effects of the adolescents' parents, peers, and community, and the adolescents' specific religious beliefs and practices were not factors included in the studies. These omissions severely limit our understanding of the complexity of the relationship between religiosity and sexuality.

  • Finally, none of the studies included here considered the effects of adolescent development on religiosity and sexuality. Given that so many changes take place during the teen years, it can only be expected that adolescents' perspectives on religion and sexuality also change over time.

The lack of progress in research on this topic can be partially explained by the fact that the type of study needed to adequately address this complex issue is complicated, lengthy and costly. Until recently, there has not been the interest in the research community nor the financial support from the government or other agencies to facilitate such research. However, improving our understanding of the relationship between adolescent sexuality and religiosity would guide the efforts of religious leaders and faith-based organizations as they continue to serve their communities.

A note to the reader: The chapter summarized here is lengthy and very comprehensive. In the interest of space, we decided to focus on the sections of the chapter which dealt with the actual research findings, and to bypass some of the sections which focused more on methodology and theory. For a copy of the entire report, contact the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy at: phone: 202-478-8566; email:; web:

Whitehead, B.D., Wilcox, B.L., Rostosky, S.S., Randall, B., and Wright, M.L.C. (2001). Reasons for Hope: A Review of Research on Adolescent Religiosity and Sexual Behavior. In Keeping the Faith: The Role of Religion and Faith Communities in Preventing Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.