(RxWiki News) Do teens' early sexual experiences determine their reproductive health and behaviors later in life? It depends slightly on how long teens wait to start having sex.
A new research study found that teens who begin sexual activities sooner are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases. They are also more likely to engage in other high-risk sexual behaviors than teens who start slower.
However, except in the case of teens who postponed sexual activity almost entirely, results did not show a strong connection between early sexual behavior and sexual health problems later in life.
"Talk to your teenagers about sexual health."
This study, led by Abigail A. Haydon, PhD, MPH, of the National Institutes of Health, compared the early sexual experiences of teens with their later reproductive health and behaviors as young adults.
For both age groups, “high-risk” behavior included having multiple sexual relationships with different partners at one time or offering sex for money.
The data, which looked at 9,441 respondents, came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which was conducted in three waves (1994-1995, 2001-2002 and 2008).
During the first wave of the survey, the participating teens were in grades seven through 12, and by the final wave they were young adults aged 26 to 32.
The surveys examined the types of sexual activities teens participated in and the timing of their first experience with these activities.
The most common sexual behavior seen was teens having vaginal sex and then another activity (usually oral sex) within two years.
Teens who postponed these behaviors were less likely to show high-risk patterns later in young adulthood and less likely to have STD diagnoses.
However, the authors note that these postponing teens do not follow the typical behavior pattern and represent less than ten percent of American teenagers.
Among those who engaged in high-risk behavior patterns at an earlier age, long- term results were not that different from their peers.
When compared to those with more common sexual behavior patterns, the outcomes of the high-risk group were similar in terms of STD diagnoses and high-risk behavior later in life.
The authors concluded that “patterns of early sexual behavior considered high risk may not predict poor sexual and reproductive health in young adulthood.”
In an interview with dailyRx News, Kathryn Paige Harden, PhD, an adolescent development expert from the University of Texas at Austin, said, "I think most people would be surprised by how little researchers know about the ways in which teenage sexual behavior influences adult outcomes."
Dr. Harden highlighted the fact that this study, unlike others, doesn't focus on solely "vaginal virginity" alone.
"This study makes a important contribution to our knowledge about teenage sex, because it considers the whole pattern of sexual behavior, including engaging in oral and anal sex,” she said.
"It's especially striking that early vaginal intercourse was not associated with poor reproductive health outcomes in young adulthood because delaying the initiation of vaginal intercourse is the goal of the abstinence-only sex education programs that predominate in many states," Dr. Harden told dailyRx News.
More research into how these behavior patterns and future reproductive health interact needs to be undertaken. With further studies, experts can learn how to better guide teens towards patterns and behaviors encouraging health and safety.
The study was published online in October 2012 by the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.