Does True Love Wait? Age of First Sexual Experience Predicts Romantic Outcomes in Adulthood

Oct. 18, 2012

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.

For more information, contact: David Ochsner, College of Liberal Arts, 512 626 0788; K. Paige Harden, Department of Psychology, 512-471-1124, harden@psy.utexas.edu

7 Comments to "Does True Love Wait? Age of First Sexual Experience Predicts Romantic Outcomes in Adulthood"

1.  Xira said on Oct. 18, 2012

This does not surprise me.

The ability to delay gratification in general is a strong indicator of having a more satisfying life. This study just extends it to relationships and sex as well.

2.  MyThoughtsAboutThis said on Oct. 18, 2012

Interesting article... I wonder if a naturally stronger libido tends toward driving those earlier sexual experiences and if the "societal stigma" of having a naturally stronger libido is contributing more to the dissatisfied longer term relationships given the increasing societal pressures to conform to group norms as couples mature takes precedence. True love is more than sex but there is a reasonable balance that's different for everyone. Very interesting topic, research and article. Thanks!

3.  Joe B said on Oct. 21, 2012

I think if we step outside the PC box and are honest, it is difficult to find an advantage to teen sexual activity. For example, the article is careful to mention "teenagers who were sexually active in romantic dating relationships had fewer delinquent behavior problems." ... but I have to wonder what % of those relationships eventually break up, and what happens to behavior at that point? Are we not allowed to actually come to the conclusion that abstinence is the best way to go?

4.  Chana Keefer said on Oct. 21, 2012

This is absolutely true. It's just great, though, to see a scientific study that takes this data seriously.

5.  art said on Oct. 22, 2012

my friends and I were awkward teens who were honor students and decent athletes who had no sexual experience in high school(male) and most girls may have gone to the prom but thats it. I know growing up that Wally Cleaver, the Brady's etc all had dates and the movie industry made it seem like you were a loser if you were a college virgin but that is just the media. Almost noone i know did anything until at least 20 and all are doing well now in late 40's.

6.  Jennifer said on Oct. 23, 2012

@ Joe B: Yes! I couldn't have said it better myself! I teach sex education for a living, and I have found that, while there may be a correlation between sexually active teens and low delinquency - this is not a cause and effect relationship. I can't tell you how many of the teens I talk to end up engaging in delinquent behaviors after a heart-wrenching breakup from a relationship where sex was the main component.

7.  MLP said on Nov. 1, 2012

I couldn't agree more, and it is gratifying to see an academic study certifying it. Delaying sexual activity implies an ability to make discerning choices (i.e. having and applying STANDARDS), so the satisfying factor is definitely emerging in one's adulthood choices in general. I am glad to see the critical factor in sexual choices being taken academically seriously, particularly given the unduly long stigma associated with it thanks to the media. In the case the correlation between lower delinquency rates and teen sexual activity, simply bear in mind correlation is not causation.