The study sought to find whether or not first sexual intercourse leads to changes in mental health as measured by depression and self-esteem, with special consideration given gender, age- norms (whether the adolescents were older or younger than most of their peers at the time of first sex), and relationship status between adolescents and their first partner (whether they had never dated, had dated but since broken up, or were still together at the time of the interview).
Researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). Add Health includes data collected from over 14,000 adolescents in grades seven–twelve who participated in interviews in 1994 and again in 1996. For this study researchers specifically looked at data from 8,565 respondents (8,565) who had not engaged in sexual intercourse at the time of their first interview.
Researchers looked at these participants’ self-reports of depression and self-esteem and compared results from participants who had engaged in first intercourse between the first and second interviews and those who still had not engaged in sexual intercourse at the time of the second interview.
Ann M. Meier, “Adolescent First Sex and Subsequent Mental Health”, American Journal of Sociology 112.6 (May 2007): 1-28.
Relatively few adolescents who engaged in their first sexual experience exhibited negative changes in mental health, and the changes that were found were relatively small.
Depression increased for 14% of the teenagers who engaged in first sex and self-esteem decreased for 2% of the teenagers who engaged in first sex.
Girls who have sex at a young age relative to the norms of their peers experience a significant increase in depression, while those who have sex “on time” or later than the majority of their peers do not experience significant effects.
Even if the sexual activity occurred in a relationship that has since dissolved, a significant increase in depression is only found in girls who had sex earlier than the majority of their peers.
Males do not experience a significant increase in depressive symptoms after first sex, regardless of age norms or relationship status.
- First sexual experiences are associated with a decrease in self-esteem among girls who have sex at a young age relative to the norms of their peers and who are not in a romantic relationship when they have sex.
Girls are most vulnerable to increases in depression if their first sexual encounter occurs in a relationship that is lacking emotional commitment. Young girls are especially prone to experience the effects of this.
Girls who end a relationship that is acknowledged in their social network experience increases in depression whether or not the relationship included sex, but those who had their first sexual experience in these relationships experience an additional increase in depression.
This study sheds some light on how first sex impacts adolescents. The study concludes that “the mental health of most adolescents is simply not affected by first sex.” However, the author found that under certain conditions first sex had a negative impact on young people. Specifically it found that girls who had sex at younger ages than their peers were more likely to experience depression and that if these younger girls had sex in a relationship that subsequently broke up, they were more likely to experience a decrease in self esteem.
One of the goals of comprehensive sexuality education is to help young people think critically about sexuality and relationships and help them develop decision making skills that they can use throughout their lives. This research can help educators work with young people to understand the significance of age and relationships when making decisions about sexual behavior. Educators may also want to use this research to spark discussions around the social norms and stigmas surrounding sexually active young women and how these may contribute to feelings of depression or low self esteem in girls in particular.
In taking on this research, the author points to the claim put forth by the 1996 Welfare Reform legislation, which authorized funding for some abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, that pre-marital sex is likely to have harmful psychological effects. The study, however, did not set out to prove or disprove this specific claim. It only looked at first sex and it only included unmarried teens. It is worth reiterating, however, that very few adolescents in the study experienced negative side effects and all of them had sex outside of marriage (married adolescents were excluded from the data analyzed). More importantly, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs frequently suggest that young people should feel guilty or ashamed of sexual behavior and that teens who have had sex are less worthy than their peers who are abstinent. This can only serve to further stigmatize sexually active teens.