Romantic Sexual Relationships Deter Teenage Delinquency, New Study Shows

Aug. 17, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — 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.

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found teenagers who are sexually active in dating relationships show lower levels of antisocial behavior compared to teenagers who are not having sex at all. However, teenagers who have sex with non-dating partners (“hooking up”) show higher levels of antisocial behavior compared to the other groups.

Paige Harden, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, says these results may suggest that teens who spend more one-on-one time with their boyfriends or girlfriends, and less time with their friends, have fewer opportunities to get into trouble.

While policymakers and researchers commonly focus on the negative consequences of early intimacy, few studies probe into the contexts and potential benefits of teenage sexual relationships, Harden says.

“It can be difficult for researchers to understand how dating experiences in adolescence influence behavior because there can be pre-existing differences between teenagers who date versus those who don’t,” Harden says.

Harden and her colleague, Jane Mendle, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, analyzed data on 519 same-sex twins in the United States between the ages of 13 and 18. The study focused on twins who differed in their dating and sexual experience. By comparing twins, researchers could control for all genetic and environmental background variables that twins share.

The respondents answered questions about their sexual activity and delinquent behaviors in computer moderated surveys conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative study that followed the respondents from adolescence into early adulthood.

To better understand what influences teenagers to have sex in dating relationships and with non-dating partners, the researchers examined environmental and genetic variables that predispose adolescents to risky sexual behaviors.

Harden found genes significantly influence sexual behavior among young teens (ages 13-15). Genes related to impulsivity, extroversion and early puberty may influence young adolescents to have sex in non-dating relationships. These same genes may also put them at risk for adverse psychological outcomes, Harden says.

However, older teens (ages 16-18) are more influenced to have non-romantic sex by environmental factors, such as coming from economically disadvantaged households, little parental involvement and poor school systems.

In a related study, published in the June issue of Child Development, Harden and Mendle dispelled a commonly held theory that smart teens delay sex. They found family environmental factors, rather than intelligence, were more important influences on teenage sexual activity.

The second study also used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The researchers analyzed responses from 536 same-sex twin siblings about their sexual behaviors and cognitive abilities. They found twin siblings who differed in academic achievement lost their virginity at about the same age.

“We found that when we compared unrelated people, teens who did better in school delayed having sex,” Harden says. “But if you compare twins raised in the same family, the difference in academic achievement doesn’t predict the age at first sex.”

The findings show economically disadvantaged teens may be more likely to receive poor grades and lose their virginity at a young age. Wealthier teens, however, may be more likely to excel in school and delay sex, due to more intensive parental monitoring and better schools.

“By simultaneously considering both the environmental contexts of adolescent sexual experience and the role of genetic predispositions, we hope to advance a more nuanced understanding of the developmental impact of adolescent sexual activity,” Harden says.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Paige Harden, assistant professor of psychology, 512-471-1124.

7 Comments to "Romantic Sexual Relationships Deter Teenage Delinquency, New Study Shows"

1.  Scott said on Aug. 17, 2011

That headline is a HUGE stretch from what the article and research says, which is basically nothing. The implication that you wanted to put in the spotlight is clear enough, but not supported whatsoever. Shame on all of you involved in this garbage.

2.  Lara said on Aug. 22, 2011

Seems to me, they hit it on the head about what sex does to a teenager. It is what I remember as a teen, if you were in a dating relationship, it added stability, thus your grades did well, your social behavior was good, interacting with teachers and other students. If you slept around then your self-esteem wasn't good, thus your grades suffered and did relationships with friends, parents and teachers. What they should be worried about is the fact that each time they have sex they are committing a FELONY and not a little one either... usually enough to land a person in prison for up to 40 years, on a registry for life and relegated to a life of poverty, because of their 'natural' teenage behavior.

THAT is what this world is coming to. Stability in a person's life can be many things, and for teens it isn't always keeping away from relationships and sexual activity.

3.  Linda said on Aug. 22, 2011

Maybe the study could just as fairly say, "Teens who do not engage in delinquent behavior are more likely to be sexually active in a committed, romantic relationship." The implied cause and effect presented in this article is unfortunate and weak. Perhaps the individual characteristics that lead to committed relationships also lead to less delinquent behavior. I would expect the researcher and the author to do a better job at explaining the variables.

4.  Philip said on Aug. 26, 2011

18 year olds included in this study could be married!
If they did not statistically disambiguate the married and unmarried subgroups, then the results are likely misleading.

5.  Cameron said on Aug. 29, 2011

A lot of healthy, constructive activities can deter a teenager from delinquency. These include extracurricuilar activities like sports, music, theater, etc. I have to agree that this is a weak, one-sided article. No matter how "committed" a sexual relationship may be at the time. Down the road the emotional effects can be long-lasting and detrimental after teens engage in premature relationships with no long-term intentions.

6.  bright obuor said on Oct. 31, 2011

Well, I think you did a good job but I From my experience as a teen and a peer counselor in High school and church I'll find it very difficult to agree with your findings on wealthier and poorer teens.
I also think this will also encourage teenagers to be engaging in sex since they will think that is the best way to avoid any misunderstandings and abuses.

7.  Demetrica White said on Nov. 3, 2011

A lot of teen are getting pregnant at a young age, kids should not be having sex at a young age.