Using data obtained from the National Survey of Family Growth, Velma McBride Murry, an associate professor of child and family development in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, examined the adult life experiences of 1,666 African-American women who had graduated from high school at least five years ago to determine how their lives were affected by their decisions concerning sex.
"Efforts to reduce teen pregnancies generally tell young women that abstaining from sexual intercourse during adolescence increases opportunities for educational advancement, employment in prestigious positions, getting married and having a traditional family," Murry explained. "But our study shows that if you adjust for high school graduation, the differences between African-American women who remain virgins throughout high school, those who are sexually active and those who actually have children aren't nearly so great as we've been led to believe."
Murry divided the women in her study into four groups: "virgins," those who didn't have sex during high school; "never pregnants," those who were sexually active but never became pregnant; "ever pregnants," those who had abortions; and "adolescent mothers," those who had a child prior to high school graduation.
According to the participants, 29 percent were virgins, 34 percent were never pregnant, 4 percent had abortions, and 33 percent were adolescent mothers.
"Even by controlling for educational attainment our study clearly showed that women who had children during adolescence did not fare as well educationally, financially or in terms of professional attainment," Murry said. "However, the picture isn't nearly as bleak as previously portrayed."
For example, while just over 60 percent of the virgins and never pregnants had obtained white-collar positions, the percentage for those who had abortions was 50 percent and the figure for adolescent mothers was 47 percent.
Also, although 47 percent of the adolescent moms were living in poverty, nearly half were living between 100 and 200 percent above the poverty level. In comparison, the rate of poverty for the other groups was 19 percent for virgins, 24 percent for those who were never pregnant, and 34 percent for those who had abortions.
Murry noted that virgins and adolescent moms were the least likely to be in marital relationships. Those most likely to be married by age 25 were the small percentage of the study who reported having had abortions.
Just as there were more similarities than differences in the life trajectories of the women in her study, Murry points out that many of the women had strong similarities in their background and that these similarities refute common assumptions about African-American families.
"Although African-American families frequently are described as being headed by single mothers, the majority of the virgins, never pregnants and those who had abortions had lived with both biological parents during adolescence," Murry noted. "Further, 47 percent of the adolescent mothers reported similar living arrangements."
Religious participation was also a common trait among the women studied by Murry, with most of the respondents reporting that they attended church at least once per week. Virgins and adolescent mothers reported attending church more frequently than the other two groups.
"These findings suggest a need to question the standard processes we use in asking teen-agers to delay sexual activity," Murry said. "Equating sexual activity status with future life options is questionable based on these findings. Further, just as adults are aware of the increasing unemployment and underemployment rates confronting our society, late adolescents are also aware."
In addition to addressing the structural inequalities and racism facing all African Americans, Murry also believes that a more global approach should be used to explain the burdens and benefits of childbearing from the adolescent's perspective.
"We can't assume that all children born to adolescent parents are unplanned," Murry said. "We need to begin asking teen-agers how they view early childbearing. For some it might be a minor annoyance or even a benefit rather than the burden that adult society views it."