Photo by Orin Zebest

There’s been a bit of buzz in the media in the past week about a study published in April in the Journal of Marriage & Family that finds some correlation between women having sex as a teenager and divorcing later in life.  So far, most of the coverage seems to imply that the data supports parents telling teens to hold back and wait until they’re adults to have sex–but is that conclusion really supported?

First, the study doesn’t necessarily say that all women who have sex under the age of 18 are more likely to divorce.  Those who have sex before the age of 16, and especially those whose first sexual experiences were unwanted or negative in some other way, are much more likely to divorce than those who have a consensual sexual experience as an older teen.  The study author suggests that negative experiences, especially, may impact a woman’s views on sex and relationships and make divorce more likely later on.

However, what I find interesting is that none of the articles about this study, even those that point out possible sex-positive interpretations of the data, question the positioning of divorce as a “risk” for women, a negative occurrence that we should try to prevent in any way we can by adjusting the messages we send teens.

I’m not saying that divorce isn’t unpleasant.  Very few people enjoy getting a divorce, but it is worth questioning whether divorce reduction is actually a policy goal that makes any sense.

The dissolution of a relationship is a choice, like the decision to have consensual sex as a teen is a choice.  I can’t help but wonder whether one explanation of the data, particularly for those women who had a consensual sexual experience as a teen and then divorced later on, might be that those women were more likely to make autonomous, informed choices about their sexuality and their relationships than their peers.  I’ll concede that I don’t find this very likely as historical fact–unfortunately, most kids growing up in this completely skewed and destructive sexual culture don’t have the skills needed to make informed choices about sex–but I think it is one explanation we should consider going forward.  Might parents not embrace a scenario where a daughter is informed and positive about sex as a teen, and then goes on to end her adult relationships when she is no longer happy maintaining them?

Given the history of “til death do us part” and lifelong marriage as the norm, we’ve been conditioned to think of divorce as a bad, negative thing, a sign of failure in a relationship.  But is it realistic to expect a relationship to last forty, fifty, sixty years?  Many relationships do end, and that’s okay.  I think we should raise our children with the skills to negotiate in a relationship and recognize when the dissolution of the relationship is the best solution for everyone involved.  As the child of two people who divorced amicably after a 12-year marriage, and have spent the next 18 years after that as best friends, I may be a little bit biased.  But I think this kind of attitude towards divorce is healthier than seeing it as a familial apocalypse, a consequence to be avoided at all costs.

I think it would be interesting to ask, for further study, what correlation the age of a woman’s first sexual experience has with marital happiness.  Are all those “successful,” not-divorced women satisfied with their marriages?  Have they experienced physical, verbal, or emotional abuse?  What are their attitudes towards divorce?  This study isn’t a bad start, but I think we need to know more to get a clear picture.