Does abstinence or delayed first sex benefit relationships?

Abstinence and pro-marriage education claims that loose sexual relationship early in life will negatively impact later relationships. Aside from the moral or religious issue of early sex, is this true? And if it is, then why? Whether inside or outside marriage, previous studies have shown those who have sex at younger ages tend to have more extra-marital pregnancies, as well as earlier marriages with more divorces. Psychologist Dr. Paige Harden of the University of Texas at Austin used data from the Child and Adolescent Longitudinal Study to compare age of first sex with how their romantic relationships worked out later in life.

Harden’s team divided age of first sex into three groups, early (below 15 years old), average (15-19) and late (over 19). Among the results, they found that those who waited until after 19 had:

  • Higher income
  • More formal education
  • Fewer romantic partners
  • Less chance of currently being married

And while less likely to be married, those who were married ranked higher in marital satisfaction based on a questionaire measuring sex, intimacy, positivity and problem-solving.

So it appears that yes, waiting to have sex is associated with better relationships (and other life factors) later on. But it doesn’t have anything to do with waiting until marriage.

Abstinence until a worthy mate comes along may strengthen your future marriage.

These are some interesting results. At the same time, the study runs up against a common problem of data-crunching research: it offers no direct causation. It cannot be proved that practicing abstinence until 19 years old directly causes the positive findings. Harden does offer some creative suggestions. The one which I believe offers the most useful advice is the “picky choosers” theory. It suggests that those who wait for sex demonstrate a more selective, careful, and detail-driven personality. People with these characteristics tend to be more successful in life.

To prove this theory another study will have to take an in depth look at individuals, measuring date of first sex with other personality trait tests. I would also love to see this data broken down by socioeconomic status and in-depth interviews on individual’s values and world views.