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 Post subject: Premarital sex in Sri Lankan
 Post Posted: Thu Dec 28, 2006 4:53 am 
Differences in male and female attitudes towards premarital sex in a sample of Sri Lankan youth


@ WHO / Towards adulthood: Exploring the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents in South Asia - 2003

By Kalinga Tudor Silva and Stephen Schensul

Dr Kalinga Tudor Silva, Professor of Sociology, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

Dr Stephen Schensul, Associate Professor, Department of Community Medicine, University of Connecticut, USA


Background

In Sri Lanka, as in other societies in this region, strong norms persist that prohibit premarital sexual contact between young men and women. The taboo on sex has been particularly rigid for young women who are traditionally expected to maintain virginity until marriage and even to prove it as part of the marriage ceremony. However, this taboo has come under severe strain due to increasing age at marriage, increased opportunities for male–female contact in educational institutions, workplaces, etc. and greater exposure to new ideas about love and sex transmitted through the media.

Sri Lanka is characterized by relatively late age at marriage and has witnessed a considerable increase in marital age over the last 50 years, especially among women. At present, age at marriage is typically around 29 years for men and 27 years for women (Dissanayake, 2000). Along with this evidence of marital postponement, there is some indication of a decline in age at sexual debut (Silva et al., 1997).

This study explored the ways in which young unmarried youth in Sri Lanka reconcile new ideas about love and premarital sex with traditional norms that disallow these behaviours. Specifically, the study explored the ways in which young unmarried people perceive love and sex, the extent to which young men and women hold different attitudes with regard to premarital sex, and the implications of these attitudes and behaviours for sexual health programmes targeted at youth.

Methods

To compare differences in the perceptions of lowand middle-income, and poorly and well educated young people, this study gathered data among respondents from two groups: youth from a lowincome urban community, and university students from faculties of liberal arts and medicine. The sample consisted entirely of never-married youth and adults aged 17 to 28. The mean age for the urban community sample was 21 years, compared to 25 years for the university sample. Researchers chose this study design to ensure that the sample included respondents from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. As education was considered an important factor leading to the postponement of marriage (Caldwell et al., 1989), the inclusion of community and university samples allowed researchers to study the impact of higher education on perceptions about sexuality and marriage.

The study used a mix of qualitative and quantitative research techniques. In the first phase, researchers gathered qualitative data through key informant interviews, open-ended interviews and pile sorting. The open ended interviews involved a total of 156 youth including 93 university students (42 males and 51 females) and 63 community youth (30 males and 33 females). In the second phase, a larger and randomly chosen sample of youth participated in a self-administered survey. The survey
sample consisted of 615respondents, including 303 from the communit(151 males and 152 female respondents) and 312 from the university (163 males and 149 females).

Following the survey, a peer education intervention programme was implemented with a view to addressing the problems identified through qualitative and quantitative investigations. Findings of the larger study are presented in Silva et al. (1997) and Silva, Sivayoganathan & Lewis (1998). The results of the intervention programme have been discussed in Nastasi et al. (1999). Using survey findings and results of qualitative investigations, the present paper explores the attitudes of male and female respondents with regard to premarital sex.

Key findings

The study inquired of young respondents whether they were currently “in love”. This group included those who were sexually active as well as those who were not. While 50% of the sample reported having a current love partner, this proportion varied from 30% and 49% among female and male university students respectively, to 51% and 63% among low income female and male youth from the community.

While gender differences in the proportions of youth reporting a current love partner were apparent, they were not statistically significant. In contrast, attitudes towards premarital sexual activity differed significantly by gender even more widely than by class. For example, compared to female respondents, male respondents reported more favourable attitudes towards premarital sex (Table 1), and nearly half (46%) of male respondents agreed that it is acceptable to have sex if it does not destroy a girl’s virginity, compared to only 14% of female respondents.

Image

These findings clearly illustrate the intensity with which gender double standards persist. Virginity at marriage continues to be highly valued. It is therefore not surprising that young women—for whom the consequences of premarital sex are most profound—are more likely than young men to adhere to these norms. As revealed in key informant and semi-structured interviews, young men, on the other hand, while refraining from penetrative sex with their “love” partners, are indeed engaging in penetrative sex with casual partners, including older women and commercial sex workers.

Observed differences between the attitudes of university students and those of low-income youth were somewhat unexpected, although they were narrower than gender differences. The hypothesis that highly educated youth are less likely to hold traditional attitudes towards the acceptability of premarital sex than less educated youth is not borne out in these data.

Indeed, the data suggest that low-income and less educated young people are somewhat more likely than university students to approve of premarital sexual activity.

Finally, the study findings suggest that young people stop short of approving penetrative sexual activity with a committed or “love” partner. Even among those who approved of premarital sex, the vast majority was in favour of non-penetrative sexual practices that preserve female virginity.

Conclusions

Evidence from the study suggests that while young people in Sri Lanka do indeed engage in dating and establish committed “love” relationships, they also remain ambivalent about the nature of these relationships and the acceptability of premarital sex. Double standards persist and premarital sex among women continues to be considered unacceptable, especially by young women.

Typically, young people resolve this conflict in two ways—either by engaging in non-penetrative sexual relations with “love” partners, or, in the case of young men, resorting to penetrative sexual activity with casual partners, including older women and sex workers. The extent to which these sexual behaviours are risky or protected remains an open question. Relations with casual partners and/or sex workers must certainly put young men at risk of infection and in a position to transmit infection to their “love” partners and future spouses. Sexual health programmes targeted at youth in Sri Lanka need to pay greater attention to issues such as non-penetrative sex, risks of sex with casual partners and the implications of the concept of female virginity in relation to sexual risks.

Acknowledgements:
This study was supported by a grant from the International Centre for Research on Women. It was implemented by a multidisciplinary and international team from the Universities of Peradeniya (Sri Lanka) and Connecticut (USA).


References

Caldwell J et al. (1989) Is marriage delay a multiphasic response to pressures for fertility decline? The case of Sri Lanka. Journal of Marriage and Family, 51:327–335.

Dissanayake L (2000) Factors influencing stabilization of women’s age at marriage. In: Demography of Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka, Department of Demography, University of Colombo:45–58.

Nastasi BK et al. (1999) Community-based sexual risk prevention program for Sri Lankan youth: influencing sexual decision making. International Quarterly of Community Health Education 18(1):139–155.

Silva KT, Sivayoganathan C, Lewis J (1998) Love, sex and peer activity in a sample of youth in Sri Lanka. In: Hettige S, ed., Globalization, Social Change and Youth. Colombo, Sri Lanka, German Cultural Institute:34–52.

Silva KT et al. (1997) Youth and Sexual Risk in Sri Lanka. Women and AIDS Research Program Phase 11: Research Report Series No. 3. Washington, DC, International Center for Research on Women.


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