The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Seeds of Divorce: Adolescent Permissiveness

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Reluctant to go where the data leads them, many social scientists are quick to appeal to “selection effects” to explain away the positive outcomes of lifelong marriage and monogamy. In their universe, marriage yields better measures of health, for example, largely because healthier people are more likely to get married. A similar argument is used to spin the documented correlation between premarital sex (and cohabitation) and divorce: it’s not actual permissiveness that jinxes a subsequent marriage but the beliefs of the individuals involved. So-called progressives, who are more likely to accept divorce, so the theory goes, are the same people who are more likely to engage in premarital sex or cohabitation.

While the notion contains a kernel of truth, research continues to quantify that premarital behaviors, not simply the convictions of a married couple, do affect the probability of marital success, as such behaviors—especially those that deviate from the ideal of monogamy—profoundly alter beliefs and attitudes about marriage and sex. That’s one of several findings of Anthony Paik, a sociologist at the University of Iowa, who explores the impact of adolescent sexual experiences on ever-married women, including the experiences of older adolescent girls who freely engage in premarital relations without any pressure, on the likelihood of marital success. Among this category of adolescents (those ages 16 to 18), he found that losing one’s virginity before marriage is indirectly linked to marital disruption, as it dramatically increases the likelihood of having multiple lovers before marriage, getting pregnant before marriage, and bearing a child out of wedlock, behaviors that statistically correlate with the risk of divorce.

Looking at a sample of nearly 3,800 ever-married women, at least 18 years of age, who participated in the 2002 wave of the National Survey of Family Growth, Paik also discovered that sexual “debuts” among adolescent girls under the age of 16, most of which were not completely wanted, as well as unwanted “debuts” among their older peers, were both directly and indirectly linked to later marital disruption. Whatever the context, women who lost their virginity before 18 doubled their risk of divorce, as nearly 31 percent and 47 percent dissolved their marital unions within five and ten years, respectively. That compares to 15 percent and 27 percent among their sisters who did not experience their sexual “debut” until adulthood (age 18), more than half of which were virgins at marriage or had their first experience with their future husbands. These women who saved themselves for their future husbands represented only 15 percent of the sample.

Paik claims his findings debunk selection effects as an explanation for the link between losing one’s virginity in adolescence and divorce. Rather, “these formative sexual experiences directly change attitudes toward marriage and sex or lead to these changes indirectly through later life-course transitions, such as the accumulation of sexual histories or experiencing premarital fertility.” His finding that heavy sexual baggage almost always follows losing one’s virginity in adolescent also explains, he claims, the documented link between premarital cohabitation and divorce.

These findings are sobering on two fronts. First, they indicate that about 85 percent of American brides enter marriage today with sexual histories that place their unions, and their future children, at risk. Second, while the number of brides before the 1970s who were virgins on their wedding day was likely lower than their grandmothers might think, in most cases the brides who were not were at least monogamous. They may have had a history, but very little—if any—baggage.

(Anthony Paik, “Adolescent Sexuality and the Risk of Marital Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and Family 73 [April 2011]: 472–85.)