Teens' sexual behavior may not predict reproductive health outcomes in young adulthood

December 21, 2012
A study by an alumna of Gillings School of Global Public Health at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and two faculty members at the School has found that most teens’ first sexual experiences may not be strongly linked to reproductive health outcomes later in life, as had been thought previously.
 
Dr. Abigail Haydon

Dr. Abigail Haydon
Dr. Amy Herring

Dr. Amy Herring

“Associations Between Emerging Sexual Behavior and Young Adult Reproductive Health,” published online Oct. 3 in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, was co-authored by Abigail A. Haydon, PhD, American Association for the Advancement of Science/American Psychological Association executive branch fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health; Amy Herring, DrPH, professor of biostatistics; and Carolyn Halpern, PhD, professor of maternal and child health.

 
The article appears in print in the December issue of the journal.
 
The authors examined multiple characteristics related to teens’ sexual experience, including the types and timing of sexual activity, to assess interrelationships between patterns of behaviors and selected outcomes. They found that the most frequent pattern of sexual behavior during adolescence involved initiation of vaginal sex and then another behavior (typically oral sex) within two years.
Dr. Carolyn Halpern

Dr. Carolyn Halpern

 

When compared with young adults reporting this pattern of behavior, only those teens who had postponed sexual activity were consistently less likely to have poor reproductive health outcomes and engage in sexual risk-taking in young adulthood, even when researchers controlled for demographic and other important characteristics. However, the authors caution that the “postponer” category of teens is not typical, making up fewer than one in 10 American teens. Outcomes for those reporting other patterns of early sexual behavior, including patterns considered high-risk, varied.
 
The authors found evidence of significant differences in reproductive health outcomes and sexual risk-taking across racial and ethnic groups, even when patterns of teenage sexual behavior were taken into account. Specifically, African-American and Hispanic teens in each sexual behavior category were the most likely to experience all of the adverse reproductive health outcomes examined. For example, they had a higher likelihood of recent and lifetime sexually transmitted disease (STD) diagnosis than whites, regardless of sexual behavior category.
 
The analysis is one of the first to examine a range of sexual behaviors and experiences in adolescence and how they relate to reproductive health and sexual risk-taking in young adulthood. It is based on data from 9,441 respondents to three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, conducted in 1994-1995, 2001-2002 and 2008.
 
The findings suggest that early teen sexual behavior does not, of itself, negatively affect future well-being. The authors recommend more research into understanding how various sexual behaviors interact and lead to healthy sexual development as teens develop into young adults.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.