Age Gap Between Partners at First Sex: Exploring Links to Later Outcomes

Sexual intercourse at an early age and sexual activity involving people of disparate ages both have well established associations with numerous poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. But what about early sex involving partners of different ages? That’s been less well studied, and the answer is complicated, as Saba Masho and colleagues showed in a study using data from 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth participants who had had intercourse by age 18. For example, women who said that they and their first partner had been 3–4 years apart in age had an increased likelihood of having been teenage mothers if they had first had sex at ages 15–17, but a decreased likelihood of teenage parenthood if first sex had occurred even earlier; for men, there was no association at all. Partner age gap at first sex was associated with respondents’ median lifetime number of partners, but the associations were in opposite directions for men and women, and differed according to age at first sex. What accounts for these findings and their somewhat unexpected patterns—and, therefore, how they may be put to practical programmatic use—remains to be determined.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine