Non-English speaking Hispanic teenagers have sex later than peers

Hispanic teenagers with lower acculturation (integration into American society) who use Spanish as their primary language are significantly less likely than their English-speaking more highly acculturated Hispanic peers to have had an initial experience of sexual intercourse, according to an article in the March issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Although researchers have begun to estimate the contribution of other social factors such as income or family structure to reported differences among ethnic/racial groups in sexual behavior, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy, a focus on between-group differences within racial/ethnic groups is also necessary to understand these differences in behaviors, according to background information in the article. The current study focuses on the variability within Hispanic adolescents in the onset of sexual intercourse.

Mary B. Adam, M.D., M.A., of the University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz., and colleagues used preprogram survey data from 7,270 Hispanic or white teens in seventh to 12th grade involved in the Arizona Abstinence-Only Education Program to predict the probability of onset of sexual intercourse based on age, gender, family structure, program location, religiosity, free school lunch, grades, rural residence, acculturation, and ethnicity. Specific attention was given to the influence of their integration into U.S. culture among Hispanic teens. The primary language spoken by the respondents (English, Spanish, or both) was used as a proxy (substitute) measure for their integration into U.S. culture.

"Although Spanish-speaking Hispanic youth differ from English-speaking Hispanic youth on most of the variables in our model…the multivariate analysis allows us to consider the effect of the ethnicity and language beyond the impact of those other predictors," the authors state. "We find that acculturation has a unique contribution to the onset of intercourse beyond those other predictors."

Overall, Hispanic youth were at greater risk for having experienced sexual intercourse than white youth, when controlling for all other predictors, the researchers found. However, when acculturation was considered, less acculturated Hispanic youth were 40 percent less likely to have experienced first intercourse than white youth, 65 percent less likely than English-speaking Hispanic youth and 55 percent less likely than bilingual Hispanic youth. Highly acculturated Hispanic English-speaking teens were 170 percent more likely to have had intercourse than white youth.

"In terms of program development and evaluation, public health professionals should understand that language differences might be indicative of broader cultural differences, even within ethnic groups," the authors conclude. "Today, there is a lack of culturally sensitive sexuality education materials appropriate to the Spanish-speaking adolescents in the southwestern United States. Additional research on Hispanic Spanish speakers with the aim of program development is critical to promote healthy sexual development in this population."

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