Adolescence, Late Night Thoughts, Marriage, Sexuality, Values

Seventeen: The Age of First Sex in the West


How old, on average, is a person in the West before they first have sex?

Well, according to Julien O. Teitler, the median age for first sex among people living in Western industrial nations dropped steadily from 1960 to 1995, before stabilizing at around age 17.

(Damn! If I’d only known that sooner, I wouldn’t have held out until 50.)

Although the median age for first sex has declined, the median age for marriage has risen in those same countries. Clearly, it is now normative in Western industrialized countries to have sex before marriage. In America, for instance, fully nine out of ten people have sex before marriage.

(Damn! If I’d only known that sooner, I would never have promised my latex love doll a wedding ring after our first night together.)

The problem is our ideals have not kept pace with our actual morals. So many people in the West still act as if it is reasonable to expect kids to hold out until marriage, even when they themselves failed to do it! Instead of merely expecting kids to hold out until marriage — something only one in ten of them will do — we should be teaching kids how to deal with premarital sex.

Teaching kids how to deal with premarital sex involves much more than merely teaching them to use a condom. Among other things, it involves teaching them a whole morality, a whole sexual ethics, and even a sexual etiquette.

A few years ago, when I was hanging out with dozens of kids here in town, I was often asked questions about ending relationships. Naturally, if you are going to start having sex years before you get married, you are almost certainly going to face the prospect of ending one or a few relationships. But when and how is it best to break up? Kids need to be taught a practical morality that addresses those issues.

That’s only one example. There are many more moral, ethical, and etiquette issues that are not being adequately addressed in part because we still hold to the ideal of waiting for marriage to have sex.

Our failure to adequately address those issues goes beyond idle interest. Morality, ethics, and etiquette are ideally ways in which generations pass down what they’ve learned of life. When all we pass down are failed ideals, we are relinquishing our responsibility to the next generation to share what real wisdom and learning we have to share.

9 thoughts on “Seventeen: The Age of First Sex in the West”

  1. Gosh, Paul, not sure I agree with age 17 as first sex age, at least in USA. Still, it may be true, but I am skeptical – sorry. In my healthcare work, and as an involved auntie with a teen girl—this is NOT what I’ve observed. I hear them talking — heck, they know more about sex (TV, internet) than we did. And it seems to me they are experimenting earlier. Age 17 seems _old_ by our measures :-). The best I can do is teach our children safe sex – STDs, etc. Took my niece for her first cootchie exam, as we called it–and, yes, birth control RX. Rather be realistic… She learnt from me (I hope) that teen pregnancy is the WORST things that can happen – their kids with grow up welfare/grandparent dependent, likely fatherless. The mother will likely live in poverty.
    And many of these teenager born children will have a grim future indeed – you sound like the exception.
    Not all people can overcome fatherlessness, poverty, etc. You, my friend, are the exception, and although I don’t really know you, you seem to be a kindly, loving soul, based on your postings recently about the troubled friend Suzanne. But I’m afraid you are the exception.
    I may be wrong, but these are my unedited, intuitive thoughts. Thanks

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  2. Hi Jackie! You raise some good points! Teitler’s study ended in 1995, and even if he was right back then, the age for first sex could have dropped since then.

    My mother was in her 30s when she had my two brothers and me. (We lost our father to a disease.) So, she didn’t face all of the problems typically faced by teenagers who have children out of wedlock. We were fortunate in that respect.

    Your niece is very lucky to have you, Jackie! Teen pregnancy is indeed one of the worse things that can happen to a girl. Thankfully, your niece has you to steer her away from it.

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  3. I completely agree with you that grown-ups should be grown-up enough to help young people prepare for the kind of relationships they’re going to be having.

    17 may be an outdated figure, but not necessarily. Young people naturally hold off until they’re physically mature enough to want it, and giving them more information about sexuality only helps them to make responsible decisions about whether or not they’re ready (as sex ed vs. abstinence ed. have shown).

    For myself, I hope to be a help to the next generation. My novels (Exmormon and the new one) aren’t meant to be pedagogical, but I am deliberately trying to present complex relationship situations for young people to think about and to contemplate what they’d do.

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  4. I think 17 is probably quite accurate for a median age. Median is derived differently from mean, after all, though the larger the sample the more they will regress towards eachother. I’m not-quite-23 and it sounds about right. Jackie must remember that she’s seeing kids who probably ARE having sex, but that there are at least as many who don’t go in for exams because they aren’t having sex (or any other reason, too). It also depends on what the study accepted as ‘first sex’. Is that anything sexual? Oral? Hetero intercourse? My girlfriend is still a virgin if it’s the last one (we make virgin birth jokes all the time, as we’re considering having kids soon). A lot of kids know a lot about sex, but that doesn’t mean they’re HAVING it. I’ve been reading erotica since I was about 14, so I knew a lot about sex, though I didn’t lose my viriginity (in the traditional hetero way) until I was 18. Still, I could have discussed blowjobs and orgasms with the best of them.

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  5. In a way, it’s kind of an uphill battle, isn’t it Chanson?

    I mean, we live in a world where it scandalizes a large number of people to suggest kids should have realistic, fact based sexuality education — let alone that anyone should do more than that to help them deal with the kinds of relationships they are likely to encounter.

    Your efforts to do something more than hand kids a condom are admirable — although handing kids a condom is, sadly, still considered controversial.

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  6. Those of us who live outside the U.S form our opinions of the society there from the media and films. I was pretty confused when i saw a film called “Juno” recently which seemed to make light of a serious problem like teenage pregnancy – it seemed to say it was no big deal and there were ways to handle the problem if one were to face it.
    It upset me as a parent and as an adult who cares about the younger generation. I didn’t think it was funny at all.
    That it was nominated for an Oscar made me wonder about the societal attitude towards teenage pregnancy

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  7. Hi Usha! I suspect what makes Juno an attractive character to many people here in the States is her strength and resilience.

    She doesn’t take the easy out — which in her case would be an abortion — nor does she become dispirited. Rather she does what she believes is right. Thus, she demonstrates her willingness to accept and deal with the consequences of her actions while staying true to herself.

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