Want a successful marriage? Make sure you have sex when you're ready.
According to a new study, women who are sexually active early in their adolescence--specifically, before age 16--are more likely to divorce.
Researchers at the University of Iowa used the responses of 3,793 women who are married or have been married at some point in their lives from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth to examine the relationship between the age at which they had their first sexual experience, and the success of their first marriage.
At first glance, the findings seemed alarming: multiple outlets (including this one), reported that up to 47 percent of women who lost their virginity during their teen years divorced within 10 years of getting married--implying that women who lose their virginity during adolescence will inevitably face conflict in their later adult relationships.
In fact, while the age at which sex first occurred was significant in determining women’s likelihood to divorce, more important was whether that sex qualified as “wanted." That's because the earlier women had their first sexual experience, the less frequently the sex was actually wanted. In short, the study's conclusions were less about the correlation between when a girl loses her virginity and her risk of divorce than it was about how the nature of the first sexual experience affects later romantic relationships.
While some of the initial reports about the study alluded to this point, they often did not explore it completely, so we decided to go to the source--lead researcher Anthony Paik--to shed more light on this surprisingly complicated study.
Huffington Post: What were the main findings of the study?
Anthony Paik: [I looked at] the association between the timing of first sex and divorce. What I found was that women who reported that their first intercourse occurred before the age of 16, even if it was “wanted,” had an increased risk of divorce compared to those who delayed sex until after adulthood [age 18]. [But this is because] sexual experiences in early adolescence have been associated with premarital conception, premarital birth, and having more sex partners over the course of a lifetime. And all those are divorce determinants.
In addition, I looked at whether or not the “wantedness” [of the sex] mattered. If a woman reported that her first sexual experience was not completely wanted—that is, she had mixed feelings about it, or didn’t want it at all—she was at an increased risk of divorce compared to those who delayed sex until adulthood and the sex was wanted. [Of] women who report their first sexual experiences as occurring very early, say, 14 or below, almost all say that their first sexual experience was not completely wanted.
HP: How is “unwanted” sex defined?
AP: The survey [results are culled from] the CDC’s 2002 Survey of Family Growth. It has a couple of questions that ask for the context of first intercourse—that it “caused mixed feelings,” that it “wasn’t completely wanted,” or that it “was completely wanted.” It’s not clear from the survey what the womens' experience was specifically.
HP: Were the participants of the survey of the same race, ethnicity, and educational background?
AP: No. The survey is nationally representative of girls and women in the US between the ages of 15 and 44. It’s quite diverse and reflective of ever-married women.
HP: What surprised you the most about your findings?
AP: I was surprised by the percentage of women who did not report their first sexual experience in adolescence as being completely wanted. There was a very strong age grading. The younger ages were much more likely to report these engagements as not completely wanted.
HP:Why were men excluded from the study? It seems as if that’s a pretty big omission.
AP: [Laughs] If I had more money I would be happy to be another study on men. But the issue is that historically, most divorce research has looked at women’s responses. For example, in the NSFG [National Survey of Family Growth], one of the major data sets for the study of divorce, didn’t even collect responses from men until 2002.
HP: What is the association between sex during adolescence and divorce? Does one necessarily cause the other?
AP: [We don’t know whether] we can infer a causal relationship between the two. One explanation for such an association would be that there’s some set of attitudes an individual has that predisposes her both to having sex early in adolescence and to divorce. That’s what’s referred to as “spurious association,” meaning that there really is no causal linkage between the two—the relationship is caused by this third variable.
HP: What could that third variable be?
AP: I think, for example, in a population of adolescents, some individuals are more permissive to sex outside of marriage. If someone is permissive toward non-marital sex, they’re also more likely to be okay with divorce. So what’s really generating the association between these two outcomes [adolescent sex and divorce] is just the attitude, [meaning] there really is no linkage between the timing of first sexual experiences and divorce.
HP: Why would unwanted sexual experiences be associated with divorce?
AP: There are two arguments: one is that it’s a PTSD process, which is a psychological model of a post-traumatic stress syndrome process [stemming from] childhood sex abuse. This model emphasizes that these experiences, particularly with adults, are traumatic, [and] lead to high levels of sexualization [which] makes individuals susceptible to relationship difficulties.
In the second argument, unwanted sexual experiences lead to early sexualization, which is associated with subsequent life-course events that are key divorce determinants, such as having more sex partners, premarital conceptions, and premarital births.
HP: So, do articles that cite your study as proof to the fact that sexual activity during early adolescence makes one more likely to divorce misrepresent the data?
AP: It’s just a lost in translation thing. If there’s a 14-year-old sexually active adolescent, that girl is at greater risk for a fertility outcome of premarital conception or premarital birth. Those later events translate into an increased divorce probability. That would be one potential causal mechanism for making them link. But the link between early teen sex and divorce are indirectly linked through these subsequent fertility and sexual outcomes.
HP: What is the primary point that gets "lost in translation?"
AP: One of the misunderstandings about the study is that it isn’t about whether or not sex before marriage versus delaying sex until marriage leads to divorce. It’s a study about whether sex in early adolescence, particularly if it was not wanted, affects future relationships.