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Educational Achievement, Not Sexual Abstinence, Predicts Long-term Mental Health in Adolescent Girls

Description: 

Many studies have focused on the immediate effects of sexual abstinence and behavior on young people’s mental health but it is difficult to ascertain whether the mental health is an outcome of behavior, or vice versa. This study sought to establish a relationship between the sexual behavior of adolescents and their corresponding mental health in adulthood.

Researchers analyzed data from the RAND Adolescent/Young Adult Panel, for which 6,527 participants were recruited at age 13 and followed until age 23. Of the 1,963 participants who completed all follow up surveys, 1,871 had not had sex by age 13; these individuals were selected as the baseline sample, and interviewed for a third time at age 29.

Researchers constructed a sexual abstinence measure using the data collected at ages 13, 23, and 29. Abstinence was defined broadly as refraining from sexual activity through the end of high school, or until age 19, though participants were also asked specifically about penetrative (vaginal and anal) sexual intercourse at ages 23 and 29. Participants’ mental health was assessed during the follow-up survey at age 29 using a well-validated mental health tool (MHI-5). In addition to sexual abstinence, researchers also considered the impact of factors such as family bonding, educational goals, and unconventionality/rebelliousness (as reported at age 13).  

Source:

Laura M. Bogart, et. al., "Association of Sexual Abstinence in Adolescence with Mental Health in Adulthood," Journal of Sex Research, 44.3 (2007): 290-298.

Key Findings:

Summary Findings

  • While abstinence showed no significant impact on men’s mental health at age 29, women who were abstinent as adolescents experienced more positive mental health at age 29. (Because of the insignificant relationship for men, further analysis occurred only with the women’s data.)
  • When the factors of education, family bonding, and unconventionality were considered, sexual abstinence showed insignificant effect on the adult mental health of women.
  • Girls who were uninvolved in school, had weak family backgrounds, and exhibited unconventionality showed poor mental health as adults, regardless of whether they abstained from sex as adolescents.
  • Though prior work has shown that girls often described more negative feelings about their first sexual encounter (such as regret), these emotions were limited to the short-term, and their effects were diminished when the above factors were taken into account.

Education

  • An adolescent girl’s “academic orientation,” or her educational performance and aspirations, was especially useful in predicting her mental health at age 29.
  • Higher socio-economic status, which could be an eventual result of greater educational prospects, has long been associated with better mental health.
  • The researcher theorized that an incidental relationship between abstinence and mental health is created because girls with college aspirations may be more likely to avoid sexual intercourse to eliminate the risk of pregnancy.

Family Bonding

  • Strong relationships between parents and children may contribute to environments in which children delay sexual activity. However, family environment cannot fully account for the abstinence-mental health relationship, and is of less importance than educational goals.

Unconventionality

  • Unconventionality also played a small role in defining the relationship of abstinence and mental health, though education overshadowed this factor as well.
  • Substance abuse, considered as part of unconventionality, did not have a consistent relationship with either mental health or abstinence in the analysis done for this study.

SIECUS Analysis:

This study highlighted the role of gender in mental health outcomes of adolescent sexual behavior. Boys who remained abstinent as adolescents did not experience any effects on their mental health as adult men. Girls, on the other hand, showed better mental health as adults if they remained abstinent as adolescents. However, the researchers identified that other factors, most significantly, educational achievement and aspirations, better accounted for positive trends in women’s mental health than abstinence alone. In total, this study concluded that “adolescent sexual activity by itself is not likely a causal factor in long-term risk for poorer mental health.”

As the researchers made it clear that abstinence had no significant impact on the mental health of men, the paper could serve as an excellent starting point for the discussion of gender-based stereotypes in sexual behavior and perception.  This finding suggests that the mental health impact of sexual activity on girls may be a mere consequence of a societal double standard which requires that female virginity, or “purity,” is safeguarded. Additionally, more research is needed on the relationship between educational prospects, family ties, and sexual behavior in both girls and boys.

This research was undertaken in part to evaluate the “social, psychological, and health gains” resulting from adolescent abstinence, as claimed by many federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Though analysis was limited to adolescent girls, this study demonstrated that abstinence is too narrow a focus for gauging long-term impacts on mental health. Improved mental health was most closely associated with girls’ abilities to make decisions in accordance with their values and perceptions regarding personal success, as reflected in educational aspirations and family connectedness. An educational emphasis on effective decision-making for all adolescents would promote well-informed choices in the short-term and positive mental health throughout adulthood.

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