Masson/Shutterstock
Source: Masson/Shutterstock

Is there a right time for a first sexual experience? 

Despite the controversies surrounding first-time sex, most young people in the United States become sexually active well before adulthood. According to a 2012 study looking at participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, sexual debut (first sexual experience) is classified as "early" if it occurs before age 15, "normative" if it occurs between 15 and 19, and "late" if it occurs after the age of 19.  

But does the age at which this sexual debut occurs make a difference in terms of later problems or benefits? A new long-term study, reported in this month's issue of Developmental Psychology, highlights the risks and rewards of sexual induction during adolescence and after.

Considering how important one's first sexual experience can be in establishing normal sexual relations and romantic pairings, it's essential that potential risks such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease be recognized. Research consistently shows that adolescents who have a sexual debut before age 15 are less likely to use contraception than those who debut in the normative or late groups. They are also more likely to have a history of substance abuse and emotional problems.

In terms of gender differences, males who are early starters are more likely to be aggressive and prone to antisocial behavior than later starters. Early-starting females, on the other hand, are more prone to depression than late starters, although the difference can fade over time. Males who start early are also more likely to experience less shame and guilt than females do, although both genders usually view first-time sex as a positive experience.

Part of the problem with research into the timing of sexual debuts is that these studies are usually cross-sectional, one-time snapshots that offer no way to determine how early or late sexuality can affect later development. For example, regarding the link between early starters and substance abuse, does the substance use make adolescents more likely to experiment with sex early, or does an early sexual debut make them more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol later? Also, most research in this area usually focuses on early starters and the adverse problems they seem to face. But what about the normative and late-start groups? How do they compare to the early starters? 

For that matter, what about the positive aspects of adolescent sex? Although research into adult sexuality identifies a wide range of psychological benefits, including stress relief, good health, and lower mortality, extending this kind of research to adolescents is often controversial. The new study, published in Developmental Psychology, takes a closer look at the positive and negative aspects of first-time sex in adolescents, whether early, normative, or late. Rachel Lynn Golden from the University of Denver and a team of fellow researchers analyzed the experiences of 200 tenth-grade students (100 males and100 females) carefully selected to ensure that their racial and ethnic distribution matched that of the United States. They were assessed on seven occasions, or "waves," at least one year apart (or 18 months for the later waves).

Along with standard tests measuring drug use, self-worth, and mental health status, all of the participants completed questionnaires on their dating history, sexual behavior, dating satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction. Participants who were already sexually active by Wave One were questioned about when their sexual debut had occurred. To provide more objective responses, the mother of each participant, and a close friend named by each participant, were asked to evaluate the participant on psychosocial competence, substance abuse, and romantic appeal. (Participants who dropped out of the study before their sexual debut or who were still not sexually active by Wave Seven were dropped from the analysis.)

Results showed that an early sexual debut tends to be associated with higher risk of internalizing symptoms (depression, withdrawal, loneliness), externalizing symptoms (aggression, antisocial behavior), substance abuse, and poor self-worth. Earlier sexual debut was associated with positive benefits as well, including greater romantic appeal, greater sexual satisfaction (for males), and greater dating satisfaction (for males). For females, there seems to be little difference in sexual and dating satisfaction among those reporting early, normative, or late sexual debuts.

The advantage of a longitudinal study is that it allows researchers to follow participants over years to see changes that occur. Although the results of this study matched what has been reported in previous studies—a linkage between early debut and both internalizing and externalizing behavior—the differences between early, normative, and late-debut adolescents largely disappeared by the time of the final wave, five or six years after high school.

So what do these results suggest? As Golden and her coauthors point out, it isn't clear whether the problems that seem to come with an early introduction to sex are due to the sexual experience itself or to other issues that may influence how young people develop later in life, such as early substance abuse, antisocial behavior, or childhood abuse. Whatever these problems may be, young people with an early sexual debut do "grow out of them" with time. 

Having an early sexual debut isn't necessarily all bad. Although young people who begin early tend to have lower feelings of self-worth than those who get a later start, there do seem to be trade-offs—at least for males. Those in the 10th and 12th grades who are early starters tend to have higher levels of romantic appeal and report greater dating and sexual satisfaction. That females don't show similar results may be linked to general beliefs about female sexuality, as well as issues of shame and guilt.  

Overall, the results suggest that young people who delay their first sexual experience until they are a little older tend to be better equipped with social skills and are likely to make mature decisions regarding contraception and protection against disease. Sexual-education programs can be made more effective by discussing the results of studies such as this one with young people and letting them make up their own minds about when to make a sexual debut. 

While there are limits to what can be learned from this kind of research, the results still provide important information on a subject that continues to be a political hot potato in many countries, including the United States. Recognizing that a sexual debut, whether early, normative, or late, can carry both risks and rewards allows young people to make informed choices about what can be one of the most important decisions of their lives.

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