Family Change and Early Sexual Initiation

Wu, Lawrence, and Elizabeth Thomson
Working paper no. 1995-26


In this paper, we examine effects of family structure on age at entry into first sexual intercourse prior to marriage for recent cohorts of women. Previous research on the link age between family structure and sexual initiation has employed relatively crude measures of family structure, typically a snapshot of the respondent’s family structure at age 14. We use retrospective parent histories from the 1979-87 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to construct dynamic measures of family structure using information on the numbers and types of parents in the responden t’s household between birth and age 18. These measures allow us to adjudicate between hypotheses on the effects of prolonged exposure to a single-mother family, prolonged absence of a biological father, parental control during adolescence, and instability in family structure. We find no effect, net of other family effects, of being born out-of-wedlock, prolonged exposure to a single-mother family, or prolonged absence of a biological father on age at first sexual intercourse. Our results are, however, consistent with effects predicted by an instability hypothesis and a variant of the parental control hypothesis that stresses the role of fathers.