Premarital Sex and The Theory of Planned Behavior: Empirical Findings and Future Directions

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Early teen pregnancy as a result of premarital and unsafe sex has been the target of ongoing research due to multidimensional disadvantages it can bring which ranges from health concerns to economic liabilities. Research about risk-taking behaviors are one of the priorities in adolescent psychology today. Because of the increased vulnerabilities and tendencies of adolescents to do risky behaviors, researchers are looking for ways to intervene.

This review examines premarital sex behavior in the light of Theory of Planned Behavior. The assumption is that every behavior, including premarital sex are affected by numerous factors such as attitudes, norms, and perceived behavioral control. This paper will outline the empirical studies that investigated those factors. At the end of the discussion, recommendations for future researches focuses on integrating these factors using TPB as a framework for creating interventions, theory testing, and program evaluations.

Overview of Theory of Planned Behavior

The theory of planned behavior (TPB) is one of the most cited and used theory to explain behaviors (Ajzen, 1991, 2011, 2012). It was developed by Ajzen as an improvement to the Theory of Reasoned Behavior which gain a wide acceptance in the 1960s. Its assumption centers on behavioral intentions as a factor to performing the actual behavior. An intention is a function of attitudes towards the behavior, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control.

The theory has been used in various settings because of its clearly defined constructs and high predictive validity (Ajzen, 2012; Armitage & Talibudeen, 2010). Particularly, health-related behaviors such as exercise, compliance to medication, and even condom use have been explained in relation to the Theory of Planned Behavior. Although there are few studies made specifically to investigate TPB in premarital sex intentions and behaviors, studies that involves specific factors about attitudes, norms, and self-control on premarital sex were many. In the following section we will summarize the findings about premarital sex in the light of the constructs of TPB.

Attitudes about Premarital Sex

Attitudes about the behavior include all the beliefs and knowledge that the person holds about a certain behavior (Ajzen, 1991). In the study of premarital sex, one aspect of the attitudes that is well researched is about premarital sex permissiveness. In the US, the 1960s marked the period of increase in liberal views about premarital sex. In 1969, about 75% of Americans view PMS as wrong whereas in the 1980s only 33-37% agreed that it is wrong. Since then, the views on PMS remained the same, in favor of a more permissive attitude towards premarital sex (Harding & Jencks, 2003).

Sexual permissiveness seems to be affected by sociological factors as well. It has been highly gendered in some parts of the world. For example, matriarchies tend to have more daughters who are permissive to premarital sex. Although this is the case, there was no difference between sexual behavior in comparison to patriarchies (Roebuck & McGee, 1977). Also, males who have more risky behaviors (i.e. drinking, smoking, high erotic exposure) are more liberal in their views. Differences exist among cultures as well, ranging from liberal to conservative views. A survey of 1500 college students in India revealed a more conservative look on premarital sex (Ghule, Balaiah, & Joshi, 2007). This is also the case in South Korea, Thailand, and Turkey (Cha, Doswell, Kim, Charron-Prochownik, & Patrick, 2007; Sakalli-Uğurlu & Glick, 2003; Sridawruang, Crozier, & Pfeil, 2010).

From these we can see that attitudes about premarital sex are highly varied despite dominant media suggestions that people are getting too liberal. This is a focal point of research for cross cultural comparisons in validating the theory of planned behavior in predicting premarital sex behavior. If attitudes have high variability in TPB models, the differences in behavior will reflect in the samples where in attitudes differ because of culture or religious views, for example.

Subjective Norms about Premarital sex

If attitudes pertain to personal beliefs, subjective norms reflect the beliefs of others about the behavior (Ajzen, 1991). Subjective norm has been demonstrated to affect intentions to have safer sex more than the attitudes or perceived behavioral control (Armitage & Talibudeen, 2010).

Subjective norms and our personal take about permissiveness are highly related. Parents, peers, and other institutions such as school and religious affairs can influence this dynamics. In one survey it has been observed that erotic exposures and peer interaction have maximum influence in permissiveness to premarital sex (Ghule, Balaiah, & Joshi, 2007).

Does sex education increase the likelihood for the youth to do premarital sex? On the contrary, it actually helps in decreasing early sex activity and teen pregnancy according to many researches.
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Religious views and affiliation can also significantly affect attitude and permissiveness on premarital sex (Ghule, Balaiah, & Joshi, 2007; Petersen, 1997). Those who have stricter rules on premarital sex tend to have lower permissiveness. However, findings of Roebuck & McGee (1977) did not see any significant difference between devout and non-devout religious participants. This suggests that religious views are not enough to predict attitudes nor intentions towards premarital sex and that together with other social variables are dynamically influencing our attitude.

In countries with a more conservative position such as Turkey, sexist views on premarital sex are strongly held. There is pressure for women to stay virgin until they marry due to views against women who do premarital sex. Significantly, males also prefer to marry a virgin woman (Sakalli-Uğurlu & Glick, 2003). This view is the same in other Asian countries like Thailand (Sridawruang, Crozier, & Pfeil, 2010). Premarital sex is unacceptable for Thai “good girls” and that they will be judged by the villagers if they commit PMS.

Perceived Behavioral Control against Premarital sex

Perceived behavioral control is the extent to which people believe they can perform (or control) a given behavior if they are inclined to do so (Ajzen, 2012). This is closely related to Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy and concurrent validations suggest that the constructs can be used interchangeably. In fact, the TPB is highly inspired by Bandura’s social cognitive theory.

In the context of premarital sex and risk behavior researches, the self-efficacy is geared towards avoidance of the behavior and control over behavioral intentions. There is a need for adolescents to achieve a sense of mastery and self-worth in the sexual domain (Rosenthal, Moore, & Flynn, 1991).

There are relatively few researches that specifically measured perceived behavioral control on premarital sex. In some findings, perceived behavioral control may explain why despite the increased permissiveness of a certain group, still there’s no difference in the expression of behavior (Ghule, Balaiah, & Joshi, 2007; Roebuck & McGee, 1977). It should be noted that the interest in perceived behavioral control as an extension to the theory of reasoned behavior were grounded in the low predictive value of attitudes such as premarital sex permissiveness. Ajzen (1991) argue that to better understand the rational thinking of people, we need to look in their perceived ability to control or perform a certain behavior. In an evaluation of TPB done by Cha, Doswell, Kim, Charron-Prochownik, & Patrick (2007), abstinence self-efficacy is a significant negative predictor of premarital sex intention. Interestingly in some instances, self-efficacy serves as the sole predictor for safer sex behavior, rendering attitudes and subjective norm as insignificant (Rosenthal, Moore, & Flynn, 1991).

A related topic in sexual behavior and self-efficacy is about how sex education can delay premarital sex. Unlike in the previous decades, today there is already a liberal stand about sex education. For example, about two-thirds of the Indian college students surveyed by Ghule (2007) favored having a sex education in schools. Most countries already have provisions in their law regarding sex education. This is not surprising since adolescents who received comprehensive sex education were less likely to be pregnant compared to those who receive no formal education or those with abstinence-only education (Kohler, Manhart, & Lafferty, 2008). In a large survey of 24,000 American students, more students chose to delay first sex encounter after attending a sex education program (Sulak, Herbelin, Fix, & Kuehl, 2006). This shows that sex education can change the attitude as well as the perceived behavioral control of adolescents with regards to premarital sex. It is noteworthy then to explore the cognitive foundation of perceived behavioral control and look on areas for intervention. In the case of sex education, it demonstrates that learning can affect perceived behavioral control.

Future directions on premarital sex researches

In the previous sections we have discussed about how premarital sex is committed due to the interplay of factors such as attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control. As the theory of planned behavior suggests, a positive inclination of these factors to the given behavior increases behavioral intentions which then can proceed to the actual behavior. Therefore, a careful examination of these processes is needed to fully understand premarital sex.

Since most of the researches cited are individual analysis of a specific factor, those researches cannot fully explain the outcomes of premarital sex. Future researchers should investigate these factors in an integrated fashion by following TPB as the framework. Better models and pathways can be created to evaluate future interventions and programs. Cross cultural studies can also help identify factors not observed from other groups. Other factors can be tested against TPB including SES, cognitive functioning, among others. For instance, there is no clear relationship between attitude towards premarital sex and parent’s SES which is contrary to most of the research findings (Ghule, Balaiah, & Joshi, 2007). Also, research on black girls by Roebuck & McGee (1977) did not find relationship between SES and permissiveness in premarital sex. Emotional and non-rational pathways to behavior should also be considered, just like what the critics of TPB have been advocating. Findings such as the relationship of love and permissiveness to sex can’t be explained by TPB (i.e. “about half disagreed on the idea that love is not necessary for sex”) (Ghule, Balaiah, & Joshi, 2007). Having this said, there still much work to do to create a complete picture of premarital sex as a planned behavior. Nevertheless, the utility and simplicity of the assumptions of TPB in explaining premarital sex creates an exciting head start for future researches.


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