Nov. 12, 2007 — A new study by University of Virginia clinical psychologists has found that teens who have sex at an early age may be less inclined to exhibit delinquent behavior in early adulthood than their peers who waited until they were older to have sex. The study also suggests that early sex may play a role in helping these teens develop better social relationships in early adulthood.
The finding is published in the current online edition of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, and runs counter to most assumptions that relate early teen sex to later drug use, criminality, antisocial behavior and emotional problems. The finding also contradicts parts of a study published earlier this year in the same journal that found a connection between early teen sex and later behavioral problems.
The researchers analyzed data on 534 same-sex twin pairs in the United States gathered at three time points over a seven-year period. By examining surveys of twins, the investigators were able to eliminate the genetic and socio-economic variables that otherwise might influence the behaviors of adolescents.
"We got a very surprising finding, particularly that early sex seems to forecast less antisocial behavior a few years later, rather than more," said Kathryn Paige Harden, the study's lead author and a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia.
"There is a cultural assumption in the United States that if teens have sex early it is somehow bad for their psychological health," Harden said. "But we actually found that teens who had sex earlier seem to have better relationships later. Now we want to find out why."
Harden says she plans further investigations that will look closely at the contexts of early teen sexual activity, such as the types of relationships, whether they were casual or intimate, how old the partners were, where the sex occurred and why, and how long the relationships lasted. She and her colleagues will then try to relate that to later behaviors and attitudes.
"Our hypothesis as a result of this finding is that teens who become involved in intimate romantic relationships early are having sex early and more often, but that those intimate relationships might later protect them from becoming involved in delinquent acts later," Harden said. "People assume there is an association between early sex and later delinquency. It could be because teen sex transgresses parental expectations and is seen as impulsive or influenced by peer pressure. But people's concerns about early sex leading to delinquency may not be warranted."
Harden does acknowledge that early adolescent sexuality is linked to early pregnancy and disease, but these risks are not inevitable. She notes that in other Western countries, such as Australia, there are similar rates and patterns of teen sexual activity as in the United States, but drastically lower rates of teen pregnancy. She attributes this to a poor level of sexual health knowledge in the United States, ineffective contraceptive use and lower abortion rates.
"I doubt that early sexuality per se reduces delinquency," said Harden's advisor and co-author, Robert Emery, a U.Va. professor of psychology. "Early sex probably is a proxy for a strong romantic relationship, and strong relationships -- think marriage -- encourage pro-social instead of antisocial behavior. So, while our findings do run counter to received wisdom, the implication in my mind is to encourage strong romantic relationships not casual, early sex."
Harden and her colleagues mined their data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative study designed to assess adolescent health and risk behavior. The data is gleaned from extensive surveys of teens that were collected in three waves between 1994 and 2002.
In addition to Emery, Harden's collaborators include Jane Mendle and Jennifer E. Hill, also U.Va. graduate students, and Eric Turkheimer, a U.Va. professor of psychology.