Sexual Debut: A Sex-Positive Perspective

Having sexual intercourse for the first time (sexual debut) is considered by many a stepping-stone in the process of sexual and relationship development. It is also a milestone along the developmental transition to adulthood (Wight et al., 2008). Despite the importance of this event, there remains much to learn about the risks and rewards of sexual debut.

Researchers do not yet fully understand the changes individuals experience with sexual debut. This is partly due to a lack of studies examining how people’s beliefs and experiences change after sexual debut. It is also due to a lack of long-term studies exploring these outcomes. Some research has begun to give us a better understanding (Golden, Furman, & Collibee, 2016).

This study used a “sex-positive” framework (Harden, 2014) to explore how healthy sexual experiences can be developmentally appropriate and rewarding for adolescents despite the risks involved. Data from 174 participants over 7 waves of data collection were used to compare behaviors (drinking and substance use, and delinquent and aggressive behavior) and beliefs (sexual satisfaction, self-worth, and romantic appeal) before and after sexual debut for participants who had their sexual debut at age 15 or after.

The analyses revealed that, after sexual debut, participants experienced increases in romantic appeal, and sexual satisfaction. In addition after sexual debut participants felt less depressed and anxious, and used alcohol and drugs less frequently.

Differences were measured among participants who had a sexual debut earlier than 15 years old, from 15-19 years old or after 19 years old (sometimes called “early,” “normative,” or “late” debut (Harden, 2012)). The study (Golden et al., 2016) demonstrated that “early” sexual debut was related to risks, such as greater substance use, more depression and anxiety, getting into trouble more often, and lower global self-worth. “Early” sexual debut was also related to feelings of increased romantic appeal, dating satisfaction (males only), and sexual satisfaction (males only).

This research helps scientific, educational, and medical communities to better understand the complex reality of having sex for the first time. The results from this study suggest that although there are some inherent risks with sexual activity, the experience of sexual debut is complex and some outcomes depend on age. Namely, a sexual debut at a normative or late age is associated with a decrease in some risks and an increase in some rewards.

Of course, there are limitations to this research, for instance, only data from individuals identified as heterosexual at the time of debut was used. In addition, smaller sample size may also have affected the ability to detect gender-related effects or differences between normative and late groups. It is important to examine the role of gendered beliefs (vs. biological sex) in differentiating outcomes (Lefkowitz, Shearer, Gillen, & Espinosa-Hernandez, 2014). However, this study was not able to explore these beliefs. In addition, it is possible that the effects of sexual debut may differ depending on the nature of the relationship with the partner (Harden, 2014), or on the nature of the debut. This too was not able to be measured.