The age of a person’s first sexual experience can determine romantic outcomes later in life, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have reported in a new study published in Psychological Science.

According to the study, parents should be concerned with the age that their children are beginning to take part in sexual activity, because the time when they start to explore sexuality is a key time of development of mental and physical health. The report states that long-term sexual outcomes may be affected as well.

Paige Harden, a psychological scientist, decided to look into whether when adolescents begin to engage in sexual activity can forecast future romantic outcomes, including number of sexual partners, living with spouses, and marriage, as well as whether the person will be happy in their partnership during adulthood.

Data was collected from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health to examine1659 pairs of same sex siblings who were studied from around the ages of 16 to 29 (adolescence to young adulthood). The individuals were put into 3 categories based on the timing they first participated in sexual intercourse; Early (younger than 15), On-Time (ages 15 to 19), and Late (older than 19).

Harden discovered that later involvement in sexual activity was linked to higher attainment of goals educationally, as well as more income during adult years, than those in the Early and On-Time groups. Also, later involvement in sexuality resulted in lower chances of marriage and these individuals did not have as many romantic partners during adulthood as the Early and On-Time groups.

The link still stood even after genetic and environmental factors were taken into account. It was not possible to explain the association by variations in adult academic levels, annual income, religious status, or by BMI (body mass index), attractiveness or teenage differences in dating involvement.

These findings indicate that the timing of when a person first has sexual intercourse clearly influences the stability and quality of future romantic relationships.

When the first sexual experience occurs in a person’s life, according to this study, is a predictor of whether people will have stable and romantic relationships as young adults.

Research has focused on the consequences of starting sexual activity early in life. However, the Early and On-Time participants in this particular study appeared to have similar outcomes later on. Early initiation does not seem to be a “risk” factor in the same way that late initiation was shown to be a “protective” factor in shaping protective outcomes.

Harden said that there are many factors that may explain this correlation. One, in particular, is that individuals who start having sex later on also have certain character traits, such as secure attachment style, which may have an effect on the onset of sexual activity and on relationships. Also, these people may be more “choosy” when it comes to their sexual partners, which would mean that it might take them longer to begin taking part in sexual activity unless they are extremely satisfied with the person they will be having sex with.

The report states that those who have their first sexual encounter later in life also have different experiences than those who begin having sex earlier. For instance, they may steer clear of aggression or victimization that comes in some adolescents’ relationships, which can be harmful to romantic relationships later on.

Harden said:

“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.”

More research is needed in order to determine which mechanisms can influence the link between sexual intercourse, timing, and romantic results later in life.

Earlier sexual intercourse is not necessarily linked to negative outcomes, according to Harden and her team. By utilizing the same data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Harden discovered that adolescents who began having sex earlier on in life, especially the teens who had sex with someone they were in a relationship with, were less likely to have criminal behavior problems.

She concluded, “We are just beginning to understand how adolescents’ sexual experiences influence their future development and relationships.”

Written by Christine Kearney