Hang in There, Mom and Dad

Hang in There, Mom and Dad January 28, 2013

I’ve been crunching NFSS numbers again, mostly assessing the sexual and relationship behaviors of young adults between ages 23-39. I don’t intend to make much of age-at-first-sex in my next book, but there are some interesting patterns worth noting.

Only 18 percent of respondents who reported first sex before age 14 also said their parents were—and are still—married; the same is true of 26 percent who reported first sex at age 14, 31 percent at age 15, 38 percent at age 16, 43 percent at age 17, 41 percent at age 18, and 57 percent above age 18.

Obviously, delaying first sex won’t likely keep your parents together (although it’ll probably please them). The other way around, however, makes more sense: intact families are conducive to adolescent thriving and wiser decision-making, and likely provide an environment in which sexual coupling doesn’t look quite so attractive, or is simply more difficult to make happen. Of course, marriage alone doesn’t cause this to occur, but rather is the context in which the things that likely matter here—better monitoring, more fulfilling parent-child relationships, better boundaries about romantic relationships—are far more likely to happen. Single parents and stepfamilies can recreate such things, to be sure. It’s just harder. And it’s less common, frankly.

Among all respondents who’ve already reported an age at first sex—that is, have already had sexual intercourse—those whose parents were and still are married reported a mean age at first sex of 18.6. Respondents whose parents divorced and in which the respondent lived with his mother (who remarried) reported an average age at first sex of 16.0.

I could compare other types of household structures and parental experiences, but none of them report as high an average age at first sex as do those whose moms and pops are still married. The two that come closest are when mom is divorced but has no romantic relationships until the respondent leaves the home, or when one parent dies and the surviving parent reports no new relationships. (Both hover around 17.8). After that, having been adopted by age 2 is next, at 17.6.

Marriage isn’t a cakewalk. I get that. Heck, I experience that. Some are better than others. Some seem to win the lottery, while others simply endure, and most of us are somewhere in between. Insert all the qualifications here about leaving violent situations, etc. Yes, I hear you.

But the fact remains—sticking around may not fit your optimal vision of a good life, but it’s the best, on average, for kids. I’ve only discussed one outcome here—average age at first sex. There are others. Scores of them. If you possibly can, hang in there, moms and dads.


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  • Have you broken out the other usual suspect yet – religiosity, sex of child, race of family? I would guess the religiously involved would be slightly later, and I am hoping there is not much race difference once marriage is accounted for. I really don’t know how the sex of the child will play out, though I would guess older for girls across the board.

    What is your next book? I have incorporated Premarital Sex in America into my “Family Life” syllabus, but am always looking for the latest stuff. 🙂

    • Mark Regnerus

      Not for this post, no. If I was putting together a journal article’s worth of analyses, by all means. But I can’t pull off a journal article’s worth of analyses every week!

  • buddyglass

    Honest question. How likely would you estimate it is that other factors (that also drive divorce) are the true cause of early sex?

    One supposes that a number of negative traits (or circumstances) are over-represented among the set of parents who divorce relative to the set of parents that doesn’t. For instance, the set of divorcing parents is likely to be less able to stick to commitments. In general, not just with respect to marriage, which could have implications on their parenting. The set of divorcing parents is less likely to be religious, meaning their children are less likely to be taught early sex is “wrong”. The set of divorcing parents may have ongoing financial stress in their lives which might also impact the sexual decisions of teens in the family. Perhaps there’s some negative psychological/emotional trait that predisposes parents to divorce, is heritable, and also predisposes children toward early sex.

    For starters, though, I’d be keenly interested in seeing whether this result holds once you’ve accounted for race, religiosity (perhaps breaking it out by faith tradition as well), and socioeconomic status.

  • Faithful Christian

    Surely the presence of a married father is the most important factor in teenagers delaying sex.
    It’s noticeable that fathers, even ones with sketchy pasts, get jealous for their daughers in particular, in case they get corrupted by other men. They know how many other men really think about teenage girls. Many mothers seem to lack that sharp awareness, or put their own neediness first, plus a lot of women value the ‘status’ of being in a relationship higher than being single and thus seen to be sad and lonely.

  • “Obviously, delaying first sex won’t likely keep your parents together…”
    Of course, neither will Christians who fail to exhort one another about faithfulness to their covenant before God, but, rather, take a cavalier attitude like, “Marriage isn’t a cakewalk. I get that. Heck, I experience that. Some are better than others. Some seem to win the lottery…”
    Nothing is sacred anymore.

    • Mark Regnerus

      I’m not usually accused of taking a cavalier attitude toward marriage, but there’s a first time for everything. I’m sorry it read that way.