Benefits of Delaying Sexual Debut
Physical Health Benefits
Delaying sexual debut has a considerable impact on the physical health outcomes of adolescents. Youth who abstain from sexual activity avoid the consequences that directly result from a non-marital pregnancy, as well as the potential lifelong implications of STDs. The indirect complications of early sexual debut include other negative health outcomes, such as increased vulnerability to partner violence, elevated risks of HIV/AIDS, and a higher probability for other risk behaviors.
Data from the National Survey of Family Growth (a five wave longitudinal study of roughly 10,000 women between the ages of 15-44), shows that beginning sexual activity at a later age reduces the risk that a teenager will experience a non-marital pregnancy and non-marital birth; both events that pose a significant physical health challenge for adolescent girls, not to mention the physical demands that are required to raise a child once it is born.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that one in four (approximately 26 percent or 3.2 million) girls in the U.S. between the ages of 14 and 19 are infected with at least one of the most common STDs (human papillomavirus, chlamydia, herpes simplex virus, and trichomoniasis). 39 This data adds to what we already know, that about 19 million new STD cases occur annually, almost half among young people ages 15-24.40
The age at first intercourse has a strong association with a persons number of lifetime sexual partners, and the more sexual partnerships one has, the greater the risk of contracting an STD.47 Research shows that adolescents who experience early sexual debut have poorer overall health and more STDs,48 while an increased number of sexual partners places them at risk for HIV/AIDS.49 Considering that new sexual partnerships among adolescents increase the incidence of STD infection,50 initiating sex at a later age decreases the probability of acquiring an STD.
Adolescent Condom Use
Adolescent condom use further exacerbates their vulnerability to STDs, mainly because of the inconsistent and incorrect use during teen sex. Ranking contraceptives by effectiveness over the first 12 months of use, one study found that the typical method failure rate for
male condoms was 15 percent.52 However, the problem with adolescent condom use does not primarily lie in the method failure rate, but rather, the user failure rate.
Research indicates that females report less consistent condom use than males;53 for example, one study found that young women reported consistent use only 50 percent of the time.54 Adolescent males fare a little better, as recent data suggests that two-thirds use condoms consistently.55 However, other studies demonstrate that due to incorrect use, the user failure rate of condoms can be as high as 70 percent.56 Similarly, a 2007 survey at Kent State University reveals that only 30 percent of sexually active college students regularly use condoms during sexual intercourse.57
Research indicates that sexual risk behaviors among adolescents, including having multiple sex partners, correlates with illicit drug use.68 For example, among sexually active high school students in the U.S., one-fourth reported using alcohol or drugs at last intercourse.69 Another study found that adolescents with an increased number of sexual partners are at greater risk for alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use, as well as dating violence, fighting, and carrying weapons.70 Moreover, research shows that sexually active adolescents are much more likely to engage in a variety of risk behaviors than their virgin peers.71
Mental Health Benefits
Adolescent Brain Development
Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to determine the amount of cortical gray matter and increases in white matter among 145 child and adolescent brains, ages 4 to 20 years old. Dr. Giedd found that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning, making judgments, controlling impulses, and foreseeing consequences, is still quite immature during adolescence. The immaturity of the prefrontal cortex, which is very common at this age, is the neurobiological explanation for why adolescents exhibit poor judgment.75
Psychological/Emotional Damage and Depression
Medical and psychiatric professionals have long pointed out the dangers associated with early sexual debut and the psychological damage it causes. In Epidemic: How Teen Sex is Killing Our Kids, Dr. Meg Meeker argues that adolescents who engage in sex at young ages routinely experience emotional turmoil. Teens may attempt to fill unmet needs through sexual escape, and they often fall into a trap of seeking love through sex, even if that sexual experience is not positive. This in turn can result in a vicious cycle, and perhaps a psychological condition called repetition/compulsion. This condition causes adolescents to seek the illusion of satisfaction in sex or substance abuse, with the idea that temporary relief will satisfy their needs. As a result, many adolescents sink further into depression.80
Adolescents who experience early sexual debut are more likely to engage in intercourse with casual partners,85 and the resulting encounters are often superficial, based on desire or physical attraction; spontaneous, and impulsive.86 Casual sex is more likely to harm the female psyche than the male, as it may alter a girls social context and induce stress by changing her self-perception.87 It may further damage females, especially considering the importance they place on the emotional investment and intimacy that results from sexual intercourse.88 These brief sexual encounters often fail to meet the needs of the female, leaving a deep emotional void.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents ages 15-19.94 Research indicates that youth who engage in early sexual activity are more likely to contemplate and attempt to take their own lives than abstainers and sexually active girls ages 12-16 were over 4 times more likely, and sexually active boys were nearly 2 times more likely, to attempt suicide, compared to their abstaining peers. Another study analyzing Wave II of the Add Health data found that sexually active girls were nearly three times and sexually active boys were eight times more likely to attempt suicide than abstainers.
One of the best predictors of financial success in the U.S. is an individuals level of lifetime academic achievement. Generally, those who enroll and succeed in higher education enjoy high rates of return to their investment.99
Teen Sexual Activity and Academic Performance
Studies suggest that early sexual activity may conflict with academic achievement, and at the very least, lead youth to become involved in a problem behavior syndrome that stands in the way of their education.106 A recent study using data from the National Survey of Children (a three-wave multistage stratified probability sample of over 2,000 U.S. children) found that adolescents who were virgins were more likely to have higher educational goals and academic achievement when compared to those who initiated sex.
Personality and Self-Control as an Indicator of Academic Success
Impulsiveness and self-control represent two traits within an adolescents personality that may determine the potential to succeed in academic endeavors, as well as their likeliness to engage in problem behavior. For those who regulate their behavior, self-control has the ability to increase in capacity, improving gradually and strengthening over time. If adolescents learn to control their sexual impulses and focus their attention on areas such as education, their ability to delay gratification may result in higher academic performance. Research shows that students with self-discipline achieve better grades, and high levels of self-control in children can predict future success.
Teenage Sex, High School Dropout and Delinquency
Research shows that early parenthood among adolescent girls decreases their educational attainment.129 and is a major obstacle to financial stability for female adolescents. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, mothers who delay childbearing until the ages of 20-21, compared to teenage mothers ages 17 or younger, earn an average of $84,000 more over the first 15 years of motherhood, or $5,600 annually.134 One study found that early and persistent sex, especially among boys, was associated with alcohol use, delinquent behavior, and poorer academic achievement.139 Studies based on the Add Health data have also found associations between early sex and delinquency. One study found that early sex was associated with a higher probability for suspension, unexcused absences, lower school-connectedness, and reduced aspirations to attend college.140
Social Benefits/Healthy Relationships
Forming healthy relationships is an integral part of adolescent sexual development. Dating has historically been recognized as one of the means by which adolescents gain experience in romantic relationships and learn to become fully sexual beings. When adolescents choose to wait to avoid premarital sexual bonds with other partners they are less likely to get involved in cohabitations, which is a major risk factor for future marital infidelity and divorce.
Influences and Outcomes of Early and Steady Dating
Dating relationships, while socially acceptable, afford adolescents opportunities to engage in sexual activity, and may even motivate them to become sexually active.164 Early dating (specifically steady dating) is associated with sexual activity among young people, as it provides the social structure for such activity to take place. In one study, nearly one in three teens had sex in the same month or before their dating relationship began, and another thirty-five percent experienced sexual debut within the first three months of their relationship. Adolescents who begin dating at an early age are likely to date more frequently and have early steady relationships, develop permissive attitudes concerning premarital sex, and have multiple sexual partners in the future.172 One study found that early adolescents involved in steady dating relationships were five times more likely to be sexually experienced than those who were not steady daters.173
Dating Violence and Abuse
Dating violence and abuse are another risk factor for early daters, and are quite common among adolescent relationships that involve sex in fact, recent data indicates that about one in five sexually active girls have a history of dating violence.174 Results of this study also indicate that engaging in sex increases the risk of partner violence for male and female victims, and that a majority of violence, including verbal abuse, came after, rather than before the sex.176 Girls are often pressured, coerced, and even forced to engage in sex before they desire, usually because their partners are substantially older. For example, one study found that compared to girls who dated boys their own age, the odds of a 13 year-old girl having sexual intercourse was six times higher if her partner was six or more years older than her.179
Stable Marriage and Family
The formation of a stable marriage and family is in many ways the product of a healthy relationship. A study following 14,000 American adults over a period of 10 years found that marital status was one of the most important predictors of happiness.182 Additionally, children in families whose parents are married have better emotional and physical health, have more opportunities to achieve academically, and enjoy improved life outcomes.183Thus, due to their ability to shape happiness and well-being, marriage and family are two of the most important institutions in society, and the existence of healthy relationships within these institutions is a key factor that determines its vitality.
Cohabitation, Marital Disruption and Infidelity
In a study using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, which includes over 13,000 individuals involved in cohabiting and marital relationships, cohabitation was associated with greater marital conflict, lower quality of marriage, poorer communication, less commitment to marriage, and more individualistic views of marriage among wives. Additionally, cohabiters perceived a greater likelihood of divorce when compared to couples that did not cohabit before marriage, and longer cohabitation was associated with a higher probability of divorce.191 Indeed, studies have found cohabitation to be a causal influence for divorce.192 Research shows that women incur a greater chance of marital disruption when they cohabitate or have their first sexual experience with a man whom they do not marry.193
The process of pair bonding assists in cementing the marital bond between husband and wife, and is universal in all humans.196 Also defined as amorousness (or sexual love), pair bonding is a powerful biological impulse that is intensified by a surge of the chemical oxytocin during sexual orgasm in both sexes.19 Because pair bonding intensifies and grows with duration, especially in women,201 it is important that sexual activity occur in the confines of a monogamous marriage; otherwise, the amorous attachment could be misplaced with a partner other then ones spouse (e.g., cohabitation and multiple premarital sexual partners). Therefore, adolescent sexual activity outside of the proper biological context of marriage not only results in the disruption of the pair bonding process, but also indicates a major problem within the society in which it takes place. Research shows that a woman is likely to have her most intense love with her first sexual partner.205 In a longitudinal study of post-adolescent college students, women reported more love for a man if he was her first sexual partner. Similarly, men reported greater love for a woman who lost her virginity with him than with a previous partner.206
Correlation between Virginity and Adult Marital Stability
In 2001, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated that 43 percent of all first marriages in the U.S. ended in divorce within the first 15 years.207 One explanation for this trend is the destructive effects that premarital sex and cohabitation have on adolescents prior to marriage. In a study analyzing the National Survey of Family Growth, non-virgin women faced a much higher risk of divorce than women who were virgins when they first marrried.209 In a similar study, among women who divorced, dissolution rates were higher for those who initiated sexual activity before marriage.210 Additionally, data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicate that among 18 year-old men and women, those who were virgins were twice as likely to stay married as those who were sexually active.211
Marriage and Well-Being
Healthy relationships in marriage not only benefit society by providing a safe and nurturing atmosphere for children, but they also provide considerable benefits to each spouse. These benefits are found, in most part, in the life-long partnership of marriage; they are attributed to a better overall quality of life, or what is also known as an individuals well-being. Research demonstrates that married men and women, on average, have better health outcomes than single or divorced individuals. A recent study analyzing data from the Health and Retirement Survey of Americans, which includes persons between the ages of 51 and 61, found that married persons, compared to cohabiting, divorced, and widowed, had the lowest rates of incidence and morbidity for each of the major diseases surveyed, as well as the lowest rates of functional disability.219
One longitudinal study found that becoming and staying married is associated with lower levels of depression (especially among men) and lower levels of alcohol consumption among women.220 Individuals who are married, especially men, rely heavily on the emotional and psychological support that a spouse provides for their well-being. In fact, one study found that divorced men and women are more than twice as likely to take their own lives.222
Married couples are also more likely to be financially well off; compared to cohabiting couples and divorced/single individuals, married persons save more, build more wealth, and receive more financial transfers from their older family members.225
39 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Press Release. (March 11, 2008). Nationally Representative CDC Study Finds 1 in 4 Teenage Girls Has a Sexually Transmitted Disease. Retrieved 3/19/08 from:http://www.cdc.gov/stdconference/2008/media/release-11march2008.htm.
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