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Deconstructing heterogeneity in adolescent sexual behaviour: a person-centered, developmental systems approach Open Access


Other title
sexual behaviour, trajectories, growth mixture modeling
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Howard, Andrea Louise Dalton
Supervisor and department
Galambos, Nancy (Psychology)
Examining committee member and department
Dixon, Roger (Psychology)
Bisanz, Jeffrey (Psychology)
Hoglund, Wendy (Psychology)
Department of Psychology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This study examined heterogeneity in adolescents’ experimentation with partnered sexual behaviours. Participants were 88 high school students in Edmonton, Alberta (M age = 16.59, SD = .95). Students completed surveys online once per two months from December, 2008 through December, 2009. Surveys tracked students’ reports of seven sexual behaviours ranging in intimacy from holding hands to intercourse. Growth mixture models were used to sort students’ trajectories of sexual behaviours across months into latent classes based on similar profiles. The best-fitting model revealed three distinct classes, labeled inexperienced, experimenting, and experienced. Students classified as inexperienced primarily reported only lower-intimacy, non-genital sexual behaviours across months, and many reported no sexual behaviours. Students classified as experimenting and experienced reported similar levels of higher-intimacy sexual behaviours across months. Most experimenting students’ behaviours appeared to increase gradually from less to more intimate, whereas experienced students appeared to make abrupt transitions between lower- and higher-intimacy behaviours, month-to-month. Demographic, personal, peer, and family variables provided additional information that increased distinction among classes, and explained residual within-class heterogeneity. The probability of being classified as inexperienced was highest for students who were younger, reported fewer sexually experienced friends, and lower parent behavioural control. Students who reported higher parent behavioural control had the highest probability of being classified as experimenting. Relations between trajectories of sexual behaviour intimacy and risk factors (e.g., later pubertal timing, fewer problem behaviours) and protective-enhancing resources (e.g., higher psychosocial maturity, more intimate friendships) varied across classes. This study shows that there are multiple pathways of experimentation with sexual behaviour in adolescence. Results are consistent both with studies that emphasize the potential for sex in adolescence to be high-risk, and with studies and arguments that emphasize the potential for sex in adolescence to play an important preparatory role toward healthy adult sexual functioning. Theoretical arguments and discussion are guided by a person-centered, developmental systems approach.
License granted by Andrea Howard ( on 2010-08-17T23:32:36Z (GMT): Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of the above terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis, and except as herein provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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