Is delaying first sex worth the wait?

U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US) — People who have their first sexual experience later than average are likely to  have more satisfying romantic relationships as adults, research suggests.

A new study 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.

“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,” says Paige Harden, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the study published in the journal Psychological Science.

Although research has often focused on the consequences of early sexual activity, the “early” and “on-time” participants in the current study were largely indistinguishable, suggesting that early initiation is not a “risk” factor so much as late initiation is a “protective” factor in shaping romantic outcomes.

The study also found that people who had a first sexual experience later were less likely to be married and had fewer romantic relationships, possibly because they might be pickier in ultimately choosing romantic and sexual partners, Harden says.

“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.”

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 says.

“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.”

Delaying sexual intercourse isn’t always associated with more positive outcomes. In her previous work, Harden 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.”

Source: University of Texas-Austin