19 October 2012

Age of first sexual encounter may effect relationship happiness and success in later life

It is widely accepted that modern society runs at a faster pace than it used to, with children and teenagers experiencing many life events at much younger ages than did their parents and grandparents. This 'growing up fast' way-of-life is of great concern to many parents, especially when their children's ventures into sexual relationships are concerned, who are worried that their children are not ready such encounters. Is there really a cause for concern, however, or are parents just fussing and worrying for nothing?

Humans are a very social species and, in resource-abundant environments, usually favour a mating pattern called monogamy, where one person has just one sexual partner for a long period of time. Such relationships are rewarding and healthy when they work, creating stable conditions in which to raise a family.

Recent research from the University of Texas has suggested that, unfortunately, there is. The study, which was carried out by psychologist Paige Harden, has tried to determine whether the timing of an individual's first sexual encounter affects their romantic relationships later in life and whether it can predict factors like relationship satisfaction, the likelihood to marry and the number of sexual partners.

Dr. Harden conducted this research via a meta-analysis, using data from the [US] National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health and followed 1659 people from their early teens to young adulthood (<29 years old). As part of this research, Harden classified each participant in one of three categories in regard to their age at their first experience of having sexual intercourse: Early (<15), On-time (15-19) or Late (>19), before comparing the qualities of their romantic relationships/encounters.

As she predicted, the most highly educated participants from greater income families were older at the time of their first experience of sexual intercourse. The study appears to show that first experiencing sex at a later age is beneficial to an individual, as those in the study showed greater levels of marriage (or living with their partner), were less likely to be dissatisfied with their partner, were less likely to persist in an abusive relationship and typically had less sexual partners over the course of their life.

In contrast, those who were younger at their first encounter tended to have many more sexual partners and typically showed a greater level of romantic dissatisfaction. This data also fit with a clear pattern: those in the 'Early' group showed much more exaggerated trends than those in the 'On-Time' category.

Dr. Harden explains these results by suggesting that waiting until later to first have sexual intercourse may be beneficial to an individual as it allows their cognitive and mental development to have finished first. As well as having obvious benefits such as greater confidence, which makes an individual more likely to walk away from abuse and inappropriate pressure, being fully developed [mentally] also appears to enable an individual to learn more 'healthy' relationship skills. Harden suggests that it is these skills in particular that allow an individual to form healthier and happier relationships, which are more likely to endure for longer periods of time.

Although these findings are worrying, and seem to show that being young when having sexual intercourse for the first time can have series and long-term negative side-effects,  more research needs to be carried out into these ideas before any significant statement can be made. Dr. Harden has acknowledged this, saying that "we are just beginning to understand how adolescents' sexual experiences influence their future developments and relationships". For the time being, however, it looks like parents are right after all, and children may indeed, be 'growing up too fast'.

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