Youth and Tell

The health and wellness of our children

Are Sexually Active Girls Headed for Divorce as Adults?

A new study find link between teen girls, sex, and divorce.

Sex has consequences, it always does. Sometimes those consequences are rewarding and beneficial, but more often than not, sex during adolescence can complicate social, emotional, and psychological development. A recent study conducted by the University of Iowa and published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (April 2011) found that overall girls who lost their virginity in their early teens were more likely to divorce upon entering adulthood. Thirty-one percent who lost their virginity as teens divorced within five years and 47 percent divorced within 10 years. The divorce rate for teenage girls who delayed sex until adulthood was much lower at 15 percent for five years and 27 percent at 10 years. Additionally, the study found that the age girls have sex plays a major role in determining future divorce rates. Turns out that girls who lost their virginity before the age of 16 (consensual or not) were still much more likely to divorce than those who did not.

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The research proves to be particularly damaging for girls who were rape and/or sexual assaulted during adolescence. Teenage girls whose first sexual experience was tagged as "unwanted" have higher divorce rates than girls who chose to lose their virginity as a teen. This specific component of the study makes a lot of sense. Early sexual experiences, especially if they are not wanted, can have lasting effects on developing healthy adult relationships. Thus, it's not surprising that with 42 percent of participants in the study claiming their first sexual experience before the age of 18 wasn't completely wanted, the divorce rates have climbed for these women in particular.

What does this mean for teen girls and is it really that bad?

Clearly the research suggests what we've all suspected – that there is an apparent downside to teenage girls having sex. However, there is a silver lining of sorts, teens who delay sex until they are older (and it's consensual) won't necessarily increase their risk for divorce as adults. There are also other ways of looking at the study through a more positive lens. Certainly it's disheartening and discouraging to see that teen girls – especially those who are young and have sexual experiences that are 'unwanted' – are placed at further risk for anything, including divorce. Yet there are a few ways to explore the findings that can serve to help us think "outside the box" when it comes to teens, sexuality, and divorce.

  • Fear not, all sexually active teenage girls are not destined to divorce. The researchers point out that not all girls who have sex under the age of 18 are more prone to divorce. Girls who chose to lose their virginity as a teen had slightly better results than those who did not, meaning that the power of choice for teens is an important factor in establishing risk for long term relationship status. The study also found that "nearly one in three women who had sex for the first time before 16 divorced within five years." The good news – a third did not. The bad? We need to continue to educate our teens about the choices they make concerning sex, but the prospect of divorce is not a dark, looming force just waiting to engulf all teenage girls.
  • Should divorce be defined as a "risk" factor? Let me be clear, I believe that teenage girls should not have sex, but the reality is that many do. With that in mind, should divorce be used as a "risk" factor for sexually active teens in the first place? Divorce can be difficult, unpleasant, and unsettling for women, but is it a diabolical force we should seek to prevent in any way we can? Our society has conditioned us to judge divorce as a negative action that represents failure, even when it's not. The expectation that women and men are able to sustain a relationship for fifty or sixty years may not be realistic in today's high paced, high tech society. The truth is that very few people enter into marriage wanting a divorce, but there are times when it's warranted. Divorce can be a positive and empowering option for women, especially if there is abuse or an unhealthy relationship. Claiming that divorce is a 'risk' in this situation insinuates it's a "bad thing" and should be avoided at all costs when the truth is that there are times divorce is not only the right thing to do, it's the only thing to do.

The findings about teenage girls, early sex, and the link to divorce are certainly troubling and give cause for concern, but it can be helpful to re-evaluate and discover ways to consider other possibilities and explanations.

Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., is a psychotherapist and writer. Her work has appeared in magazines including BabyTalk, Parents, and Parenting.

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