We have several papers on whether having sex is associated with negative wellbeing. Much of our work in this area has used college student samples, and has generally demonstrated that sex is linked, if anything, to improved wellbeing.
However, other evidence suggests that early sexual intercourse (before age 16) is linked to adolescent girls’ anxiety and depression.
In this paper, we considered within-person associations between sexual initiation and internalizing symptoms. We used annual data on internalizing symptoms from ninth grade to age 19, as well as data on sexual initiation. In addition to generally examining whether sexual initiation is linked with increased internalizing symptoms, we also examined whether this association decayed over time.
We replicated prior research, demonstrating that sexual initiation was associated with increases in internalizing symptoms for early initiating girls. However, we also demonstrated that the association decayed over time. By 1 year after sexual initiation, early initiating girls were similar to girls who initiated later and to girls who were not sexually active. Sexual initiation was not associated with internalizing symptoms for boys, or for girls who initiated at age 16 or older.
These findings suggest that, although early sexual initiation may negatively impact female adolescents’ mental health, this association fades with time. As with many other types of disruptive life events, the negative impact of early sexual initiation decreases as girls are farther removed from the event. In fact, based on other research, being sexually active may begin to confer mental health benefits for girls, if they become regularly sexually active.
Finally, think about the prevention implications of these findings. Although an abstinence only perspective often states that sexual initiation in adolescence is damaging to wellbeing, our findings indicate that, even for early initiating girls, having sex does not confer long term negative consequences. Scholars consistently argue for the importance of comprehensive sex education, to benefit both girls and boys, whether sexually active or not. These findings are another piece of evidence against abstinence only education, and the complexity of associations between sexual behavior and wellbeing.
“Early Sexual Initiation Does Not Have Long Lasting Negative Effects on Girls’ Mental Health first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on July 17, 2018.”