The Pros and Cons of Dating and Sex During Adolescence
Dating and sexual intercourse during adolescence is often seen as negative, but some researchers view it as an important developmental milestone.
Romantic relationships and sexual activity during adolescence are often viewed in the popular media as a complex topic. One popular news article from a parents-of-teens website suggests that teens should not be allowed to date until the parent has discussed with them all aspects of romance and dating, including sexual activity. However, opinions on “The Talk” and discussing sexual intercourse with adolescents vary by region. For example, I grew up in a highly conservative area of the South and had to sign a chastity pledge as part of my abstinence-only sexual education. Meanwhile, my friends in other states learned about various birth control methods. Some researchers maintain that early romantic relationships and sexual debut have harmful effects. Other researchers insist that these processes are all part of natural development and may have positive effects.
Some previous research on the negative outcomes of dating during adolescence has focused on something called a risk framework. A risk framework emphasizes the negative outcomes of a behavior, in this case teen dating and sexual behaviors. For instance, there has been previous research on depression as an outcome of adolescent dating. Teens may be unprepared to handle the stress of being a relationship, and this may lead to an increase in depressive symptoms. In addition, there has been a focus on teen dating and partner violence. Adolescents may be unable to properly communicate their feelings to their romantic partner, as they are still learning social boundaries. Furthermore, teens who engage in sexual behaviors may be more at risk to develop an STI or STD. Teens may be unaware of different contraceptive methods, or not know how to use a condom.
Other researchers look at adolescent sexual well-being from a normative developmental perspective. Some previous research has demonstrated that 95% of 18-19 year olds have dated at some point in the past. Thus, this behavior may be seen as more “normal” rather than “abnormal”. This research also expands on what may be appropriate for different age levels. Dating at 12-years-old (group dates) may look different than dating at 16-years-old (solo dates), and those who begin solo dating “on time” do not show any significant delinquent or aggressive behaviors. Having sexual intercourse at thirteen may have different repercussions than having sexual intercourse at seventeen, such as those who have sex at a younger age may be more likely to engage in riskier sexual behaviors, have negative attitudes towards condoms, or have lower sexual satisfaction. Those who are older are less likely to experience these outcomes. Sex-positive research has explored findings that sexual relationships within a stable romantic relationship led to less depressive symptoms among adolescents.
Adolescent romantic relationships and sexual behaviors have been a contested topic in both the popular media and in academic research. Some research shows that these processes may have negative effects, but other research shows that it may depend on other factors such as age, relationship stability, and even life experiences. In some cases, these processes may have positive outcomes. In other words, romantic relationships and sexual intercourse are complex behaviors and we need to prepare adolescents accordingly.
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Jenna L. McPherson received her M.A. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in Spring 2017. She is currently working with Dr. Graciela Espinosa-Hernández as she prepares to apply for Ph.D. programs in the fall. Her research interests include romantic relationship initiation.