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Does true love wait? Age of first sex found to predict adult outcomes

Oct. 17, 2012
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Peo­ple who have sex be­fore age 20 tend as adults to make less mon­ey—but are more likely to be mar­ried, and have more ro­mantic part­ners, new re­search has found.

Yet they al­so find these rela­t­ion­ships less sat­is­fac­to­ry, the re­search sug­gests.

Par­ents wor­ry about their kids get­ting in­volved in all kinds of risky be­hav­ior in mod­ern times, but they wor­ry es­pe­cially about their kids’ for­ays in­to sex­u­al rela­t­ion­ships. Psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ent­ist Paige Hard­en of the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Aus­tin used da­ta from a U.S. sur­vey known as the Na­t­ional Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study on Ad­o­les­cent Health to study 1,659 same-sex sib­ling pairs who were fol­lowed from around ages 16 to 29. 

In pre­vi­ous stud­ies, Hard­en and col­leagues have found that ear­li­er sex is­n’t al­ways as­so­ci­at­ed with neg­a­tive out­comes. For ex­am­ple, us­ing the same sam­ple, she found that teenagers who ex­pe­ri­enced their first sex­u­al in­ter­course ear­li­er, par­tic­u­larly as part of a ro­mantic dat­ing rela­t­ion­ship, had fewer de­lin­quent be­hav­ior prob­lems. “We are just be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how ado­les­cents’ sex­u­al ex­pe­ri­ences in­flu­ence their fu­ture de­vel­op­ment and rela­t­ion­ships,” she said.

In the new study, 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. The find­ings are re­ported in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a re­search jour­nal of the Wash­ing­ton-based As­socia­t­ion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Lat­er tim­ing of first sex­u­al ex­pe­ri­ence was as­so­ci­at­ed with high­er educa­t­ional at­tain­ment and high­er house­hold in­come in adult­hood, the study found. Peo­ple who had a lat­er first sex­u­al ex­pe­ri­ence were al­so less likely to be mar­ried and they had few­er ro­mantic part­ners in adult­hood, the find­ings in­di­cat­ed. But if they were mar­ried or liv­ing with a part­ner, they ex­pe­ri­enced low­er lev­els of rela­t­ion­ship dis­sat­is­fac­tion. The as­socia­t­ion held up even af­ter tak­ing a range of oth­er fac­tors in­to ac­count in­clud­ing genes, en­vi­ron­ment, re­li­gious­ness and at­trac­tive­ness.

Re­sults for “ear­ly” and “on-time” starters were about the same, the study found, sug­gest­ing early initia­t­ion is not a “risk” fac­tor so much as late initia­t­ion is a “pro­tec­tive” one.

Sev­er­al pos­si­ble mech­a­nisms that might ex­plain the find­ings, Hard­en said. For ex­am­ple, peo­ple who have their first sex­u­al en­coun­ter lat­er may al­so have cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as “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 in­ti­mate rela­t­ion­ships un­less they are very sat­is­fy­ing.

It’s al­so pos­si­ble, she said, 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 peo­ple “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.”

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People who have sex before age 20 tend as adults to make less money—but are more likely to be married, and have more romantic partners, new research has found. Yet they also find these relationships less satisfactory, the research suggests. Parents worry about their kids getting involved in all kinds of risky behavior in modern times, but they worry especially about their kids’ forays into sexual relationships. Psychological scientist Paige Harden of the University of Texas at Austin used data from the a survey known as the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health to study 1,659 same-sex sibling pairs who were followed from around ages 16 to 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.The findings are reported in the research journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Later timing of first sexual experience was associated with higher educational attainment and higher household income in adulthood, the study found. People who had a later first sexual experience were also less likely to be married and they had fewer romantic partners in adulthood, the findings indicated. But if they were married or living with a partner, they experienced lower levels of relationship dissatisfaction. The association held up even after taking a range of other factors into account including genes, environment, religiousness and attractiveness. Results for “early” and “on-time” starters were about the same, the study found, suggesting early initiation is not a “risk” factor so much as late initiation is a “protective” one. Several possible mechanisms that might explain the findings, Harden said. For example, people who have their first sexual encounter later may also have certain characteristics, such as “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 intimate relationships unless they are very satisfying. It’s also possible, she said, 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 people “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.” 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. “We are just beginning to understand how adolescents’ sexual experiences influence their future development and relationships,” she said.