"That's Nasty" to Curiosity: Early Adolescent Cognitions about Sexual Abstinence

Mary A. Ott, Elizabeth J. Pfeiffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

27 Scopus citations


Purpose: Effective sex education for early adolescents should make use of age-appropriate cultural models about sexual abstinence. However, little is known about how early adolescents view this topic. We describe developmental differences in cognitions about sexual abstinence among high-risk early adolescents. Methods: After institutional review board approval and informed consent, we interviewed 22 11-14-year-olds, using a qualitative, two-stage interview. Participants were first asked a series of open-ended questions about sexual abstinence, and then asked to explain their answers. Interviews were transcribed, organized by age, and read in their entirety. Codes were developed from the literature, field notes, and transcripts. Key concepts were identified and models were developed with a focus on developmental change. Results: We observed three distinct views of sexual abstinence, "That's Nasty," "Curious," and Normative. All viewed abstinence as a starting point and sex as a transition to adulthood. "That's Nasty" participants identified sex as distasteful, displayed limited understanding of sex, and viewed abstinence as appropriate for kids like themselves. Curious participants expressed a desire for information about sex, and a sense of missing something important. Normative participants viewed the transition from abstinence to sexual experience as part of a normal, albeit challenging, transition to adulthood. Conclusions: Participants demonstrated differences in cognitions about sexual abstinence, related to age and development. The transition from viewing sex as distasteful to curiosity appears to be a time of both vulnerability and openness, and may provide an opportunity for intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-581
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Adolescent Health
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2009


  • Adolescent behavior
  • Cognition
  • Early adolescent
  • Schema
  • Sexual abstinence
  • Sexual behavior
  • Transition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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