Today’s adolescents have an array of challenges before them that previous generations never faced. Fifty years ago, there were only a handful of STIs; today, sexually active teens are at risk for acquiring over two dozen. At the same time, the age at first marriage has steadily risen by 20-25 percent, cohabitations have increased 9.75 times, and sex before wedlock has become the norm, not the exception. If that’s not enough, combine the 24-hour media circus with a multi-billion dollar pornography industry, Victoria’s Secret at every shopping mall, and Hollywood’s sex-saturated messages broadcast in your living room, and you have a sex-on-demand culture being digested by our children every day.
Sexual risk avoidance offers young people the most scientifically proven way to avoid the consequences of early sexual initiation, but in order for adolescents to embrace this message these concepts need to be communicated effectively and often within public education. Surveys indicate that parents desire a sexual risk avoidance message for their children; however, U.S. culture is simply not reinforcing this value, making it difficult for youth to understand the reasons why they should wait for sex. Thus, educational strategies should focus on the following conclusions that can be drawn from the benefits of delaying sexual debut.
Premarital sex has a negative impact on the physical health of adolescents, and typically hurts girls more than boys. Although sexually active young men are at risk to acquire STIs, females (especially younger girls) are more vulnerable to these infections because of their biological makeup. Girls are also more likely to suffer physical abuse in sexual relationships, and research indicates that adolescent females have a higher probability of contracting an STI when their romantic partner is substantially older. Typically, girls do not report using condoms as consistently as boys; and neither gender’s brain is developed enough to make reasoned, future-oriented decisions about contraception. Girls also tend to pay a much higher price than boys when it comes to teenage pregnancy, as they are often left to carry and raise the child on their own.
Some of these physical consequences may also play a role in the psychological health outcomes of sexually active youth. For example, adolescent girls who are abandoned by their boyfriend after learning of a pregnancy may become depressed with the prospect of raising a child alone. Women also tend to make more of an emotional investment in romantic relationships, which could lead them down the path of seeking love through sex; this in turn may result in the vicious cycle of repetition/compulsion. On the other hand, boys typically suffer psychological symptoms only when combining sexual activity with other high-risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use; and both genders are more likely to think about and commit suicide if they have initiated sex at a young age. However, if young people wait, they avoid many of these risks, and stand to benefit from the social and financial advantages that sexual risk avoidance offers.
One of the best social outcomes that result from sexual risk avoidance is the occurrence of healthy relationships. When adolescents choose to wait they avoid premarital sexual bonds with other partners. This in turn makes them far less likely to get involved in cohabitations, which is a major risk factor for future marital infidelity and divorce. Healthy marriages also benefit the well-being of each spouse (especially men), and provide a nurturing environment for children. Another social benefit that stems from sexual risk avoidance is increased financial stability. When adolescents avoid childbearing outside of marriage they are able to focus their attention on educational pursuits and future careers without having to sacrifice the time and money that a family demands. Although research has not demonstrated a clear causal relationship between early sex and delinquency, many studies show that when teenagers abstain they are less likely to get enmeshed in a problem behavior syndrome that includes poor academic performance, substance use, and other risk behaviors.
Although the data is not clear for every single outcome, research demonstrates that sexual risk avoidance has a significant impact on the physical, psychological, financial, and relational health of young people. Parents and policy makers alike should continue to embrace sexual risk avoidance as a primary message for sexuality education, develop strategies based upon the existing data, while building upon new research that continues to evolve.
Note: this summary is based on an excerpt from the book Benefits of Delaying Sexual Debut (Second Edition) by Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC. For more information and to purchase a copy, click here.