Does true love wait? Age of first sexual experience predicts romantic outcomes in adulthood

October 17, 2012

It's a common lament among parents: Kids are growing up too fast these days. Parents worry about their kids getting involved in all kinds of risky behavior, but they worry especially about their kids' forays into sexual relationships. And research suggests that there may be cause for concern, as timing of sexual development can have significant immediate consequences for adolescents' physical and mental health.

But what about long-term outcomes? How might early sexual initiation affect in adulthood?

Psychological scientist Paige Harden of the University of Texas at Austin wanted to investigate whether the timing of sexual initiation in adolescence might predict romantic outcomes – 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 relationship – later in adulthood.

To answer this question, Harden used data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health to look at 1659 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 . Her findings are reported in a new research article published in , a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

As expected, later timing of first sexual experience was associated with higher educational attainment and higher 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 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 in adulthood. The association held up even after taking genetic and environmental factors into account and could not be explained by differences in adult , income, or religiousness, or by adolescent differences in dating involvement, body mass index, or attractiveness.

These results suggest that the timing of first experience with sexual intercourse predicts the quality and stability of romantic relationships in young adulthood. 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 suggest that early initiation is not a "risk" factor so much as late initiation is a "protective" factor in shaping romantic outcomes.

According to Harden, there are several possible mechanisms that might explain this relationship.

It's possible, for example, that people who have their first sexual encounter later also have certain characteristics (e.g., secure attachment style) that have downstream effects on both sexual delay and on relationship quality. They could be pickier in choosing romantic and sexual partners, resulting in a reluctance to enter into intimate relationships unless they are very satisfying.

It's also possible, however, that people who have their first sexual encounter later have different experiences, avoiding early encounters with relational aggression or victimization that would otherwise have detrimental effects on later romantic outcomes.

Finally, Harden explains that it's possible that "individuals who first navigate intimate relationships in , 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."

Future research can help to tease apart which of these mechanisms may actually be at work in driving the association between timing of first sexual intercourse and later romantic outcomes.

In previous studies, Harden and her colleagues have found that earlier sexual intercourse isn't always associated with negative outcomes. For example, 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. She explains, "We are just beginning to understand how adolescents' sexual experiences influence their future development and relationships."

Explore further: Romantic sexual relationships deter teenage delinquency, new study shows

Related Stories

Romantic sexual relationships deter teenage delinquency, new study shows

August 18, 2011
Sexually active teens in committed, romantic relationships are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior than teens who have casual sex, according to new research from psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin.

Study finds link between relationship style and sexual dysfunction

March 7, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Deakin University research has shown that being too needy or not needy enough in a relationship can result in sexual issues.

Secret love cheats pose a greater infection risk than those in open sexual relationships

June 14, 2012
People who were sexually unfaithful without their partner's knowledge were less likely to practice safe sex than those who had other sexual relationships with their partner's consent. They were also more likely to be under ...

Recommended for you

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

Risk of distracted driving predicted by age, gender, personality and driving frequency

November 17, 2017
New research identifies age, gender, personality and how often people drive as potential risk factors for becoming distracted while driving. Young men, extroverted or neurotic people, and people who drive more often were ...

When male voles drink alcohol, but their partner doesn't, their relationship suffers

November 17, 2017
A study of the effect of alcohol on long-term relationships finds that when a male prairie vole has access to alcohol, but his female partner doesn't, the relationship suffers - similar to what has been observed in human ...

Spanking linked to increase in children's behavior problems

November 16, 2017
Children who have been spanked by their parents by age 5 show an increase in behavior problems at age 6 and age 8 relative to children who have never been spanked, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal ...

Multiplayer video games: Researchers discover link between skill and intelligence

November 15, 2017
Researchers at the University of York have discovered a link between young people's ability to perform well at two popular video games and high levels of intelligence.

Generous people give in a heartbeat—new study

November 15, 2017
Altruistic people are said to be "kind hearted" - and new research published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that generous people really are more in touch with their own hearts.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Oct 17, 2012
Harden explains that it's possible 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."


Recognizing scripts is an effective relationship skill.
You know where you are and you know where you are going.
The outcome is predictable. There is no need to test a script with a 'poor track record' where the outcome is predictable.

Navigation' then means abandoning and replacing such scripts for scripts where relationships thrive.

The catch is very few have the skills to recognize scripts, and - to an even lesser degree - to abandon detrimental scripts.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.