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Americanized hispanic teens have more sex { March 8 2005 }

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March 8, 2005, 12:13AM

Hispanic teen sex study puzzling
Increased use of new language seems to lead to a much higher level of activity

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

As Hispanic teens shed the language of their native countries and immerse themselves in American culture, they become dramatically more sexually active, a new study shows.

A review of 7,300 Arizona teenagers' behavior, which should translate well to other states that border Mexico, including Texas, found that 31 percent of Hispanic teens who speak primarily English have had sex, more than twice the percentage of those who speak primarily Spanish, 14 percent.

The key question why? remains unanswered.

"I wish I knew," said the study's lead author, Dr. Mary Adam, a pediatrics researcher at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine. "This is certainly something we are continuing to explore."

The study, published in this month's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, adds evidence to the so-called healthy immigrant paradox, that Hispanics coming to the United States are healthier than second- and third-generation U.S. residents from the same countries.

Various research has found that less-Americanized Hispanic children have healthier diets, better immunization rates, fewer suicide attempts, and decreased use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs than more Americanized adolescents.

"The study certainly speaks to some of the risks we face in everyday life here," said Katharine Donato, a sociologist at Rice University who studies ethnic health disparities. "But I wouldn't quite say it's an indictment of our culture."

Some researchers have attributed the importance of family in Hispanic culture, and the high regard for parental roles, as playing a part in protecting health, as well as the social support from a large family. But there is not a broad consensus yet in the medical and sociological communities studying these questions.

A better understanding of the beneficial aspects of Hispanic culture, and the healthy components of U.S. culture could generate new approaches to address a host of public health issues, from obesity to smoking, said Dr. Glenn Flores, a pediatrician at the Medical College of Wisconsin, in an editorial that accompanied the research article.

"The discovery of a single unifying intervention that could reduce or prevent some or all of these conditions would be hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments of modern medicine," he wrote.

Dr. Peggy Smith, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and director of Ben Taub Hospital's Teen Health Clinic, said the trends in the study follow what she has observed.

Smith says as Hispanic girls become more immersed in U.S. culture, if they are unmarried when they become pregnant, they tend to be far less inclined to marry before or soon after the child is born.

That means the children are being raised in single-parent homes, which has financial ramifications, and studies have clearly shown that opportunities and outcomes for such children are far lower than compared to two-parent families, Smith said.

Smith believes she knows at least partly why Hispanic adolescents become more sexually active after living in the United States.

Hispanic children who come to this country become immersed in a culture that is more permissive about sex, Smith said chaperones are not uncommon on dates in Mexico. Beyond that, because of an increasing focus on abstinence, there is less information available about birth control than in most other industrialized countries.

"As a culture, we have problems with openly discussing the whens and ifs of sex with our children," Smith said. "This is one of the outcomes of that."

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