Adolescent First Sex and Subsequent Mental Health

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American Journal of Sociology/University of Minnesota

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The 1996 Welfare Reform Act and its reauthorization in 2002 provided for federal funding of programs that promote abstinence from sex until marriage. At a time when that funding is up for reauthorization, this study throws some cold water on one of the basic tenets of abstinence ideology, as stated in the law: that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

The study provides “a test of the assertion that sex has negative psychological or mental health consequences – an assertion that has yet to be verified or rejected,” writes author Ann Meier, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, in the May issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

For examples, an oft-cited 2003 study by the Heritage Foundation that analyzed a similar set of AddHealth data to Meier’s concluded, “Sexually active teens are less likely to be happy, more likely to be depressed and more likely to attempt suicide.”

Meier found that 86 percent of teens did not experience depression or low self-esteem as a result of having their first male/female vaginal intercourse before marriage, although she acknowledges that the remaining 14 percent did.

“Being female or younger than the average age at first-time sex among your peers [before age 15 for girls and age 14 for boys] increases the chance of depression,” Meier said in a prepared statement. So does “a lack of commitment or intimacy within the relationship and what happens to the relationship after first-time sex.”

Using data from the 1990s waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a study of the health-related behaviors of more than 8,500 students in grades 7 through 12, Meier looked closely at several factors surrounding first sexual experiences and the effects of those experiences on mental health. Those factors included symptoms of depression before and after first sexual intercourse, self-esteem, dating status, emotional commitment and social “embeddedness” (the level of recognition afforded the relationship by the youths’ parents and peers).

Such distinctions are important because they suggest that the mental health effects of early sexual relationships are not a function of what Meier calls “absolute age,” but have more to do with a youth’s “relative age” based on social norms within a variety of characteristics and contexts.

“Not all romantic relationships are the same, and characteristics of those relationships matter for how one’s mental health is affected by sex,” Meier notes in the study. She asserts that her findings show that while “adolescent first sex can lead to increases in depression and decreases in self-esteem,” it is not the case for the vast majority of adolescents.

Meier said through the University of Minnesota press office that she hopes her work will help policymakers focus more the most vulnerable youth and on the contexts in which sexual initiation occurs, rather than “promoting a one-size-fits-all approach” to youth sexual behavior.