ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The vast majority of teens from disadvantaged neighborhoods have ideals as high as their more privileged peers about sexual behavior and romantic relationships, a University of Michigan study shows.
"My findings suggest that there's no such thing as a monolithic ghetto culture that promotes early sexual behavior and childbearing," said U-M sociologist David Harding. "In fact, teens who live in disadvantaged, urban areas start out with hopes as high as anyone else's in our society. But the mixed messages they receive make them less likely to realize their ideal relationships."
The study, published this month in American Sociological Review, analyzes data on more than 13,000 adolescents who were surveyed as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which gathered data at three points in time, starting when they were in grades seven through 12 and following them over seven years.
The first time the teens were interviewed, they were asked to identify which of 17 events were part of their ideal romantic relationships. Then they were asked to arrange these events in their preferred chronological order.
The next time the teens were surveyed, about a year later in most cases, they were presented with a similar list and asked to describe the sequence of events in relationships they actually had.
Among the events: We would go out together in a group. We would tell others that we were a couple. We would go out together alone. We would tell each other that we loved one another. We would meet each other's parents. We would kiss. We would give each other gifts. We would have sex. We would get married. My partner or I would get pregnant.
"The old notion of the correct sequence of romantic events was 'First comes love, then comes marriage, etc.'" said Harding, an assistant research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and an assistant professor in the U-M sociology department. "It's debatable whether most U.S. teens would agree with that anymore. But when we compared their ideal sequence of events to what actually happened in their subsequent relationships, the kids from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods were less likely than teens from more advantaged places to realize their ideals."
Girls were no more or less likely than boys to realize their ideal relationships, Harding discovered.
Harding also examined the degree to which teens agreed or disagreed with the following statement: It wouldn't be all that bad if you got pregnant (or got someone pregnant) at this time in your life.
Even in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, more than 70 percent of teens disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. But a sizable minority of adolescents in those neighborhoods did not subscribe to the dominant view. Nearly 30 percent of teens in disadvantaged areas agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, compared with just 12 percent of those from advantaged areas.
"There is more cultural diversity in disadvantaged neighborhoods," Harding said, "and this variety helps to predict teen sexual activity and romantic relationships. In places where kids are getting mixed messages about what's okay and what's not, they are less likely to act in accordance with their own ideals and beliefs. And they are less likely to realize their own ideals."
Harding controlled for a number of factors in his analyses, including the percent of housing units in a neighborhood that were owner-occupied, the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood, whether the adolescent lived with a single parent, and parental education and occupation. He also controlled for the type of school the teen attended, since previous research has shown that school characteristics (private, Catholic, size, etc.) are important predictors of sexual and romantic behavior.
According to Harding, the findings suggest that rather than being disconnected from mainstream society, poor urban residents navigate through a cacophony of mixed messages; from all types of people and places.
"This view is both more optimistic and in some ways more pessimistic than the underclass view," Harding said. "There is considerable support for conventional norms, so the seeds of positive change are likely present in disadvantaged neighborhoods. But there are all kinds of alternative or oppositional models available, too, which can confuse or weaken the dominance of conventional models of behavior.
"What teens really need is help in sorting out all the mixed messages they're getting," Harding said.
His research was funded by the National Science Foundation, The William T. Grant Foundation, the American Education Research Association, the MacArthur Foundation, and by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest academic survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.