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Late to the Game, Happier in Relationships

According to a study published in Psychological Science,1 teenagers who wait longer to have sex experience different kinds of romantic relationships later in life compared to teens that start having sex earlier. This 15-year longitudinal study (beginning in 1994 and concluding in 2009) tracked teenagers’ sexual activity and long-term relationships into their late 20s/early 30s. Those teens that had sex before age 15 (23%) were considered “early” sexual bloomers. Most teens (60%) had sex for the first time between the ages of 15 and 19, which scientists consider normal for American teenagers (thus, “on time”), and 16% of teens reported having sex for the first time after age 19, and were labeled “late” sexual bloomers (8% of the sample did not report having sex at all in their lives).

The researchers argued that any differences in sexual timing (or, what researchers refer to as “sexual debut” – which admittedly sounds fancier) were more likely due to individuals’ personality (e.g., openness to new experiences) or background characteristics (e.g., religiosity) and not lack of opportunities. How can they make this claim? It turns out that observers rated the late bloomers as equally attractive as the early and on-time bloomers, and these groups also did not differ in their BMI (body mass index; a measure of how much someone weighs in proportion to their height). So there is no evidence to support the “ugly duckling” hypothesis—i.e., that some people who take longer to have sex were less attractive at first and then grew to be more attractive later on.

The key findings in the study were as follows:

  • Those who waited longest to have sex…
    • …had fewer romantic partners in their lives.
    • …were less likely to cohabitate.
    • …were less likely to be married.
  • But, among those who ended up married or in a long-term relationship, those who waited longer to have sex reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction compared to those (in relationships) who had sex earlier. 

Why does having sex early, on time, or late have such far reaching effects in time? Well, one possible explanation could be genetic or biological (maybe some people are more genetically prone to be less horny in their teenage years and this also predicts having different kinds of relationships)—but there doesn’t appear to be evidence for that, because the author of the study controlled for genetic variance by examining siblings together in her analyses. As she notes, the explanation for these findings is currently “unknown.” One possible explanation is simply that people who wait longer to have sex are “pickier” (they have higher standards and are less willing to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship unless it is highly satisfying). Another possibility is that those who forego sex and dating in adolescence are buffering themselves against potentially negative and damaging experiences (like physical or emotional abuse), which would have resulted in less satisfying relationships later on. In other words, perhaps these early sexual/romantic experiences may cause emotional scars that take a long time to heal (even decades), which thus impact future relationships well throughout adulthood…

We need more research like this to investigate exactly why sexual maturity is correlated with these relationship outcomes later in life, but for the time being, it appears that waiting longer than average to have sex does result in fewer but happier romantic experiences. Those who wait longer seem to be emphasizing quality over quantity in their romantic lives.

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1Harden, K. P. (2012). True love waits? A sibling-comparison study of age at first sexual intercourse and romantic relationships in young adulthood. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1324–1336. 

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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