Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Adolescent Sexuality and the Risk of Marital Dissolution

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Adolescent Sexuality and the Risk of Marital Dissolution

Article excerpt

This research investigates whether first sexual intercourse during adolescence is associated with increased risk of first marriage dissolution and tests whether the results are consistent with causal or selection explanations. Drawing on a sample of 3,793 ever-married women from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, this study estimated event-history models of first-marriage dissolution. Results indicate that wanted sexual debut in later adolescence does not directly increase the risk of marital dissolution but is linked indirectly as a result of subsequent premarital sexual outcomes. Sexual debut that is not completely wanted or that occurs before age 16 is associated with increased risk of marital dissolution. The results suggest that the timing and context of adolescent sexual debut have important implications for marital stability.

Key Words: adolescence, dissolution, divorce, marriage, sexual behavior, premarital sex.

Since 1988, roughly one third of U.S. female teenagers, ages 15-17, reported having already experienced their first sexual intercourse (Abma, Martinez, Mosher, & Dawson, 2004). Because "adolescent sexual debut" is linked to the number of sex partners over the life course, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen pregnancy (Furstenberg, 2003; Seidman, Mosher, & Aral, 1992), it has generated immense interest among scholars and the public (for a review, see Buhi & Goodson, 2007). Similarly, a long-standing concern in family research is whether adolescent sexuality and premarital sex are linked to union formation (Gaughan, 2002; Landale & Forste, 1991; Laumann, Gagnon, Michaels, & Michael, 1994; Marini, 1985; Miller & Heaton, 1991; Raley, Crissey, & Müller, 2007). In contrast, population-based research on whether adolescent sexual debut is associated with marital dissolution in the United States is scant.

A handful of population-based studies have linked premarital sexual behavior to increased risk of divorce (Heaton, 2002; Kahn & London, 1991; Laumann et al., 1994; Teachman, 2003), but they did not examine whether adolescent sexual debut was particularly salient for marital dissolution. There is evidence that adolescent sexual behavior is likely a divorce determinant. For example, decreased relationship quality, a correlate of relationship instability, has been linked not only to having multiple sex partners over the life course but also to childhood sexual abuse (Browning & Laumann, 1997). Thus, although little is known about the relationship between adolescent sexual debut and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution, there are reasons to suspect that such a relationship exists.

I addressed this gap in the literature by investigating whether adolescent sexual debut is associated with marital dissolution among American women and by testing three possible explanations. First, adolescent sexual debut may directly increase the risk of marital disruption. Sexual experiences early in the life course may be particularly influential in changing marital and sexual attitudes, thus making marriage to one husband less attractive. Some scholars have also suggested that traumatic, unwanted sexual experiences during childhood and adolescence induce psychogenic processes repeatedly experienced throughout the life course that lead to unstable relationships (Finkelhor, 1988). Second, a life-course explanation suggests that adolescent sexual debut may be indirectly associated with marital disruption through intervening behaviors and outcomes, such as the accumulation of premarital sex partners and premarital pregnancies (Browning & Laumann, 1997). Finally, associations between adolescent sexual debut and marital dissolution may be linked to selection factors (Kahn & London, 1991; Laumann et al., 1 994; Teachman, 2003). There may be observed and unobserved factors linked to marital instability that also predispose some girls to adolescent sexual debut. …

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