The Relationship between Cultural Values and Sexual Behaviors in Latino Youth

A recent study emphasizes the need for confronting unhealthy sexual behavior in a culturally appropriate manner. Latino youth, for example, are disproportionately affected by consequences of risky sexual behaviors such as HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as compared to other youth. Teen pregnancy rates for Latinas are nearly twice the national average of the United States. Studies show that attitudes towards teen pregnancy are different for this group as compared to other ethnic groups,1 which may be a reason for differing sexual behaviors and outcomes in different ethnic groups. Clearly, further investigation into the cultural beliefs that shape sexual behavior is needed to help Latino youth make responsible choices.

So far, there is little research on the link between Latino sexual values and sexual outcomes. One study from the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley aimed to meet this need. The purpose of the study was to understand how cultural values affect sexual behaviors. Based on prior research, the study used three key variables that may affect sexual behaviors — attitude toward female virginity, sexual desire, and partners’ comfort with sexual communication. Additionally, the study considered several outside factors which may shape cultural values. These outside factors include the level of acculturation, gender role norms, and parental influence. These external factors were considered as covariates in the study. Several sexual outcomes were assessed in the study: the age at first intercourse and number of sexual partners in both the past year and lifetime, and condom use.2 These behavior outcomes are also key risk factors for HIV and other STIs.

The researchers hypothesized that the importance of female virginity and sexual satisfaction would be linked to a delay in sexual debut. They further hypothesized that the value of female virginity even in the presence of high sexual desire would relate to later sexual debut and fewer partners.
This cross-sectional study was conducted between 2003 and 2006. A sample of 839 sexually active Latino youth, ages 16 to 22 years, in the San Francisco area participated in the study. The average age of sexual debut of the participants was 15 years. Researchers analyzed data for men and women separately to account for differing effects of gender norms.

The study produced several significant findings. The value of female virginity was linked to a lower number of lifetime partners. A stress on sexual satisfaction related to more sexual partners within the past year. Both men and women showed all of these trends. Also, need for “sexual satisfaction” correlated with earlier sexual debut and less or no condom use in men. On the other hand, women’s comfort in talking about sex with their partners was associated with earlier sexual debut and low condom use. Condom use among the participants decreased as relationship length increased. These findings show the impact of cultural beliefs on sexual behaviors and which beliefs may protect youth form risky behaviors and hence their consequences. For example, the importance attached to female virginity is linked to delayed sexual debut. Need for “sexual satisfaction” and comfort in communication with the partner is linked with early sexual debut. However, the importance attached to virginity trumps the need for “sexual satisfaction” and can motivate delayed sexual debut. On the other hand, these values were not associated with condom use behaviors that would reduce the risk of adverse consequences of sexual activity.2 Hence, sexual health promotion messages tailored to the cultural beliefs of the audience, not condom use promotion, would be more effective in preventing consequences of risky sexual activity.

The study had several limitations. Sexual practices were self-reported. This may have introduced bias or misreporting. Interviews were conducted in English. Non-Spanish interviews prevented these findings from being generalizable to less acculturated Latino youth. Also, only three sub-groups were included: Mexican, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan. The cultural nuances of these sub-groups may have been lost in grouping them together. Lastly, these findings can only be applied to youth who have already been sexually active in heterosexual relationships. Future research should study the process of informing sexual behaviors prior to sexual debut.

In spite of the limitations, such studies motivate the use of culturally appropriate research-based programs for Latino youth in schools. Since cultural beliefs vary according to ethnic and environmental factors, a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective in every community. Of note, the importance of virginity and need for sexual satisfaction and their link to sexual debut may need to be addressed specifically in programs for Latino youth.3 Latino youth value virginity in their partners and should be motivated to avoid sexual activity until they are in a committed long term relationship. For more effective prevention, prevalent beliefs and attitudes of youth should be assessed and addressed to provide effective programs.

The Medical Institute provides research-based programs tailored to the target communities for maximum impact. MI’s highly successful risk avoidance-based Paso a Paso: Building Healthy Families Program in El Paso, TX was tailored to the unique beliefs of Latino youth in the border areas of Texas. Addressing prevalent beliefs and attitudes was vital to the support and effectiveness of that program in target communities.


1. Rocca CH, Doherty I, Padian NS, Hubbard AE, Minnis AM. Pregnancy Intentions and Teenage Pregnancy Among Latinas: A Mediation Analysis. Perspect Sex Reprod Health 2010;42:186-196.
2. Deardorff J, Tschann JM, Flores E, Ozer EJ. Sexual Values and Risky Sexual Behaviors Among Latino Youths. Perspect Sex Reprod Health 2010;42:23-32.
3. Mueller TE, Castaneda CA, Sainer S, et al. The implementation of a culturally based HIV sexual risk reduction program for Latino youth in a Denver area high school. AIDS Educ Prev 2009;21:164-170.

Reviewed: February 2011