AUSTIN, Texas – Individuals who have their first sexual experience later than average may have more satisfying romantic relationships in adulthood, according to a new study from The University of Texas at Austin.
The study by Paige Harden, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and the Population Research Center, suggests that those who had a later first sexual experience were also less likely to be married and had fewer romantic partners in adulthood.
"Most people experience their first intimate relationships when they are teenagers, but few studies have examined how these adolescent experiences are related to marital relationships in adulthood," said Harden, who used data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health to look at 1,659 same-sex sibling pairs who were followed from adolescence (around age 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.
Among the participants who were married or living with a partner, people with later sexual initiation were more likely to say that they were happy with the way they and their partners handled conflict, that their partners showed them love and affection, and that they enjoyed doing day-to-day things with their partners. 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, or 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 suggest that early initiation is not a "risk" factor so much as late initiation is a "protective" factor in shaping romantic outcomes.
Harden said it's possible that people who have their first sexual encounter later might be pickier in ultimately choosing romantic and sexual partners.
"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," Harden said.
Future research can help to determine which of these mechanisms may actually be at work in driving the association between timing of first sexual intercourse and later romantic outcomes.
"We still don't understand precisely why delaying sexual intercourse is correlated with more satisfied adult relationships," Harden said. "In the future, we are interested in looking at whether sexually active teens are more likely to have negative relationship experiences – like intimate partner violence – that may put them at risk for worse relationship outcomes later in life."
Harden also explains that delaying sexual intercourse isn't always associated with more positive outcomes. In her previous work, she found that teenagers who were sexually active in romantic dating relationships had fewer delinquent behavior problems.
"The idea that abstaining from sex is always 'good' for teens is an oversimplification. Teenagers' sexual experiences are complicated," she said.
Harden's findings are reported in a new research article to be published in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.