Research looking at how the timing of sexual initiation in adolescence impacts adult romantic ties finds that having sex later may lead to better relationships.
In a new study, Dr. Paige Harden, a psychological scientist, investigated how the timing of sexual initiation in adolescence influences 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 and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin 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 sexual intercourse.
Harden’s findings are reported in a new research article published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
As expected, later 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 in adulthood.
Researchers found that these associations with a later sex experience were not changed when genetic and environmental factors were taken into account. Furthermore, the associations could not be explained by differences in adult educational attainment, income, or religiousness, or by adolescent differences in dating involvement, body mass index, or attractiveness.
Experts believe the results suggest that the timing of first experience with sexual intercourse predicts the quality and stability of romantic relationships in young adulthood.
Although investigators have often focused on the consequences of early sexual activity, the Early and On-Time participants in this study were largely indistinguishable.
Researchers say the data suggests 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 said 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.”
Experts say that additional research is needed to 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.
Prior studies by Harden and her colleagues have provided evidence 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 said, “We are just beginning to understand how adolescents’ sexual experiences influence their future development and relationships.”