LOS ANGELES — Asian American/Pacific Islander high school students perceived sex to be riskier than did peers of other ethnicities and engaged in sex at much lower rates, in a study conducted in large public schools in Northern California.
The study of 411 adolescents (average age 16 years) uncovered widespread misconceptions across all racial/ethnic groups about the risks of vaginal and oral sex, but these misperceptions were greatest among Asian American/Pacific Islander students, Dr. Dzung X. Vo reported at the annual meeting of the Society for Adolescent Medicine.
Responses were analyzed from three groups: whites (44%), Hispanics (27%), and Asian American/Pacific Islanders (29%), said Dr. Vo of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. More than half—58%—were girls.
Students were asked to estimate the risk of various health consequences, as well as the potential damage to their social standing and relationships, of engaging in one act of vaginal intercourse or one act of oral sex. The researchers found that among students of all racial/ethnic groups, those who had actually engaged in sex perceived fewer risks and more potential benefits of having either vaginal or oral sex.
Hispanics were most likely to report having engaged in vaginal sex (44%), followed by whites (37%) and Asian American/Pacific Islanders (21%). Whites were most likely to have engaged in oral sex at 50%, followed by Hispanics (45%). Asian American/Pacific Islanders were far less likely than their peers to have engaged in oral sex, at 17%.
In 7 of 14 categories of potential risk from having vaginal sex, Asian Americans perceived a greater level of risk than did whites.
For example, whites thought there was a 56% chance of becoming pregnant after one episode of vaginal sex, while Asian American/Pacific Islanders calculated the risk at 65% and Hispanics, at 62%. (These differences were statistically significant for white students versus the other groups.)
Asian American/Pacific Islander students thought there was a 67% chance that vaginal sex might be pleasurable, compared with whites, who estimated a 76% chance and Hispanics, who estimated a 74% chance.
Asian American/Pacific Islander students equated as significantly higher than their peers the following potential risks of having oral sex: pregnancy, acquiring a sexually transmitted disease, getting HIV, harming one's relationship, getting in trouble with parents, and experiencing guilt.
Many students overestimated the actual known risks of sexual activity, Dr. Vo noted. For example, students believed one act of intercourse was far more likely to cause pregnancy than is truly the case. Even in the case of unprotected intercourse (which wasn't specified), the risk of pregnancy per act is probably less than 10%, even at a time of maximum risk in the ovulatory cycle. A significant number of students believed oral sex would put them at risk for pregnancy.
White students estimated the risk of becoming pregnant through oral sex at 7%, significantly lower than the 19% risk perceived by both Asian American/Pacific Islander students and Hispanic students.