SOCIETY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Link between teen sex and subsequent divorce
, July 9, 2011
Women who have sex as young teens are more likely to divorce, a University of Iowa study of nearly 3,800 women has found. Further, an overwhelming majority of those who had sex while under the age of 18 — over 90 per cent — felt they had been coerced into it.
Published in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, the analysis found that 31 per cent of women who had sex for the first time as teens divorced within five years, and 47 per cent divorced within 10 years. The divorce rate for women who delayed sex until adulthood was far lower: 15 per cent at five years, and 27 per cent at 10 years.
Author Anthony Paik, associate professor of sociology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, examined the responses of 3,793 ever-married women to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth.
He found that when first intercourse took place early in adolescence — before the age of 16 — the women were more likely to divorce.
If the young woman waited until age 16 or 17 and the first sexual encounter was wanted, there was no direct link to dissolution down the road. But, while the sex itself did not increase the likelihood of a marital split, other factors — including a higher number of sexual partners, pregnancy or out-of-wedlock birth — increased the risk.
Thirty-one per cent of women who experienced adolescent sex had premarital sex with multiple partners, compared to 24 per cent of those who waited. Twenty-nine per cent experienced premarital conceptions, versus 15 per cent who waited. And, one in four women who had sex during their teenage years had a baby before they were married, compared to only one in 10 who held off.
“The results are consistent with the argument that there are downsides to adolescent sexuality, including the increased likelihood of divorce,” Professor Paik said.
Significantly, the study found that only a small minority of women who had sex before age 18 said it was completely wanted. Just 1 per cent chose to have sex at age 13 or younger, 5 per cent at age 14 or 15, and 10 per cent at age 16 or 17. Another 42 per cent reported first sexual intercourse before age 18 that was not completely wanted, while the remaining portion of the sample waited until age 18 or older to have sex (wanted, 22 per cent; unwanted, 21 per cent).
Professor Paik said there were a couple of potential explanations for the link between teen sex and divorce.
“One possibility is a selection explanation, that the women who had sex as adolescents were predisposed to divorce. The attitudes that made them feel okay about having sex as teens may have also influenced the outcome of their marriage,” he said. “The other possibility is a causal explanation — that the early sexual experience led to the development of behaviours or beliefs that promote divorce.”
In a statistical analysis, he found more evidence for the latter, suggesting that the sexual experiences as a teen affected the marriage. The results related to unwanted sex supported his hunch.
“If the sex was not completely wanted or occurred in a traumatic context, it’s easy to imagine how that could have a negative impact on how women might feel about relationships, or on relationship skills,” Paik said. “The experience could point people on a path toward less stable relationships.”
Limitations of the study included a lack of information on respondents’ work status, which is often used as a control factor in divorce research, and the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data included some imputed values.
Professor Paik arrived at the same results by excluding the imputed figures, but would like to repeat the study with the new 2006-08 data to confirm that the findings still hold.
“It’s a timely topic, given the current debate over the sexualisation of girls,” he said. “This study tries to provide some answers about adolescent sexuality and the risk of marital dissolution, and the results show that both the context and early onset of first intercourse are associated with divorce.”