The University of Iowa analysis found that 31 percent of women who had sex for the first time as teens divorced within five years, and 47 percent divorced within 10 years.
The divorce rate for women who delayed sex until adulthood was far lower: 15 percent at five years, and 27 percent at 10 years.
Author Anthony Paik, associate professor of sociology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, examined the responses of 3,793 ever-married women to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth.
"The results are consistent with the argument that there are down sides to adolescent sexuality, including the increased likelihood of divorce," Paik said.
"But there's also support for the 'more sex positive' view, because if a teen delays sex to late adolescence and it is wanted, that choice in itself doesn't necessarily lead to increased risk of divorce," he stated.
Paik said there are a couple of potential explanations for the link between teen sex and divorce.
"One possibility is a selection explanation, that the women who had sex as adolescents were predisposed to divorce. The attitudes that made them feel OK about having sex as teens may have also influenced the outcome of their marriage," Paik explained.
"The other possibility is a causal explanation -- that the early sexual experience led to the development of behaviours or beliefs that promote divorce," he said.
In a statistical analysis, he found more evidence for the latter, suggesting that the sexual experiences as a teen affected the marriage. The results related to unwanted sex supported his hunch.
Nevertheless, he cautions that it is too early to rule out the selection explanation.
"If the sex was not completely wanted or occurred in a traumatic context, it's easy to imagine how that could have a negative impact on how women might feel about relationships, or on relationship skills," Paik said.
"The experience could point people on a path toward less stable relationships," he stated.
The findings have been published in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
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