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Sexual Studies: Romantic Outcomes In Adulthood Predicted By First Sexual Experience

December 15, 2012
The CSPH

Every Saturday, The CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re looking at a study from the University of Texas at Austin investigating the link between timing of first sexual experience and long-term romantic outcomes in adolescence.

Previous research has shown evidence that the timing of sexual development can have significant immediate consequences for adolescents’ physical and mental health, but psychological scientist Paige Harden was interested in the long-term romantic effects such as whether people get married or live with their partners, how many romantic partners they’ve had, and whether they’re satisfied with their relationships in adulthood. Harden collected data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, looking at 1,659 same-sex sibling pairs who were followed from adolescence (around 16) to young adulthood (around 29). Each sibling was classified as having an “early” (younger than 15), “on-time” (age 15-19), or “late” (older than 19) first experience with sexual intercourse.

From the results of this study, Harden found that “late” timing of first sexual experience was associated with higher educational attainment and higher household income in adulthood when compared with the “early” and “on-time” groups. Individuals who had a later first sexual experience were also less likely to be married and they had fewer romantic partners in adulthood. Among the participants who were married or living with a partner, later sexual initiation was associated with significantly lower levels of relationship dissatisfaction. The association held up even after taking genetic and environmental factors into account and could not be explained by differences in adult educational attainment, income, religiousness, or by adolescent differences in dating involvement, body mass index, or attractiveness.

Although research has often focused on the consequences of early sexual activity, the “early” and “on-time” participants in this study were largely indistinguishable. The data suggests that early initiation is not a “risk” factor so much as late initiation is a “protective” factor in shaping romantic outcomes.  There are several possible explanations for why this might be the case: first of all, American society has a long history of denying the existence of sexuality or sexual play in children and young adolescents, and when someone reports engaging in sexual activity at a young age (in the case of this study, before 15), it is assumed that this will have negative effects because children of this age are “too young” to have sexual desires and therefore must have been coerced into engaging in such activity. It is also possible that people who have their first sexual encounter later than average (according to this study, after age 19), may have certain characteristics or experiences that delay their interest in sex or their participation in sexual activity. These individuals could be very particular in choosing romantic and sexual partners, come from a household that prohibits them from being alone with a partner, or have issues with anxiety or self-esteem, or a variety of other explanations.

Harden explains that “individuals who first navigate intimate relationships in young adulthood, after they have accrued cognitive and emotional maturity, may learn more effective relationship skills than individuals who first learn scripts for intimate relationships while they are still teenagers,” and states, “we are just beginning to understand how adolescents’ sexual experiences influence their future development and relationships.”  It is likely impossible to tease apart which mechanisms may actually be at work in driving the association between timing of first sexual intercourse and later romantic outcomes, but Harden and her colleagues have found, to a scientific degree of certainty, that earlier sexual intercourse is not always associated with negative outcomes. In fact, using the same sample from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, she found that teenagers who experienced their first sexual intercourse earlier, particularly those who had sex in a romantic dating relationship, had lower levels of delinquent behavior problems. While this is an interesting correlation, it obviously needs more context and closer investigation to understand what the connection is between early sexual intercourse and low levels of behavior problems. One possibility is that adolescents who have sex earlier than their peers with a romantic partner may be more mature or well-adjusted emotionally and thus feel ready to have sex and also exhibit less “delinquent” behaviors.  Regardless, the findings are an important reminder that early sexual intercourse does not always result in negative outcomes for the individual.

Please click here to read more about this study.