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- What methods have researchers developed to assess the benefits of delayed sexual activity on outcomes for adolescents?
- On the basis of these methods, what does the research evidence suggest about the benefits of delayed sexual activity for pregnancy and childbearing, physical health, relationships, economic self-sufficiency, mental health and emotional well-being, delinquent behavior and criminal activity, risky sexual activity, and substance use?
For several decades, the federal government has supported programs that encourage adolescents to wait to have sex. This support stems in part from the evidence and expectations that delaying sexual activity can have important benefits for adolescents and society as a whole. The most direct of these benefits are reductions in teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, research has also found benefits of delayed sexual activity extending beyond these physical outcomes, particularly for girls.
This report synthesizes the current research literature on the benefits of delayed sexual activity. The synthesis encompasses studies from multiple academic disciplines and many potential outcomes, including education, mental health, substance use, relationships, and delinquency and criminal activity. The synthesis also covers the methodological approaches researchers have developed to study the benefits of delayed sexual activity for these outcomes.
Key Findings and Highlights
The project team reviewed 57 studies. These studies find that delaying sexual activity has the following effects:
- Delaying sexual activity from the early teen years to the later teen years reduces the chances of a pregnancy early in adolescence but does not result in a substantial effect on the chances of any pregnancy before age 20.
- Delayed sexual activity reduces the chances of STI transmission.
- Delayed sexual activity until age 20 reduces the chances of being married at ages 24 to 32, reduces the chances of living with an unmarried partner at ages 24 to 32, and improves reported relationship satisfaction among couples who do get married or live together at those ages.
- Among girls, delayed sexual activity until age 18 reduces the future chances of a first marriage ending in divorce, separation, or annulment.
- Delayed sexual activity does not appear to be associated with changes in other relationships.
- By reducing the chances of early childbearing, delayed sexual activity increases the chances of high school graduation among girls.
- For girls who either had sex early relative to their peers or broke up with a romantic partner in the same year they first had sex, delaying sexual activity would have reduced reported symptoms of depression in the short term.
Many studies have found associations between the timing of first sexual activity and measures of adolescent and adult development beyond those listed above. Further research is needed to understand the causal pathways underlying these associations.
To identify studies for the synthesis, the project team used multiple search strategies, including database and snowball searches. From an initial list of over 350 potentially relevant studies, the team selected 57 studies for more in-depth review. The selected studies all used data from the United States and examined delayed sexual activity as the main predictor variable of interest. For each selected study, the team read the full text of the study, documented the methods and data used, and recorded all relevant estimates of the relationship between delayed sexual activity and any outcome of interest. After distilling information from each study, the project team analyzed the literature both as a whole and for each of the following eight outcome domains: (1) pregnancy and childbearing; (2) physical health, including the transmission of STIs; (3) relationships; (4) the path to economic self-sufficiency; (5) delinquency and criminal activity; (6) mental health and emotional well-being; (7) risky sexual behavior; and (8) substance use.
Rotz, Dana, Brian Goesling, Nicholas Redel, Menbere Shiferaw, and Claire Smither-Wulsin (2020). Assessing the Benefits of Delayed Sexual Activity: A Synthesis of the Literature. OPRE Report 2020-04, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.