Teens’ First Sexual Relationships Are Often Romantic, Short-Term, and Sometimes Abusive

Washington, DC – Nearly half of all teenagers have had sexual intercourse before age 18. What are these first sexual relationships like? This is the question Child Trends helps answer with this unique approach to understanding teens’ first sexual relationships. The data show that the majority of first sexual relationships are romantic, but many are short-term. Alarmingly, one-quarter included some form of abuse, with nearly one in ten teens reporting physical abuse within their relationship.

The new Child Trends research brief, The First Time: Characteristics of Teens’ First Sexual Relationships, reports on teens’ first sexual encounters. Key findings include:

Relationship Characteristics

  • Among teens who have had sex, the majority of teens viewed their first sexual relationship as more than a casual fling. Eighty-five percent define these relationships as romantic involvements.
  • One-quarter of teens who have had sex reported that verbal abuse (name-calling, insults, threats of violence, disrespectful treatment) occurred within their first sexual relationship. Nine percent reported physical abuse in their first sexual relationship, and seven percent reported both physical and verbal abuse.
  • More than half of sexually experienced teens (61 percent) began having sex within three months of the start of their romantic relationship.
  • One-quarter of teens who have had sex reported having sex with their first sexual partner only once. This number could be made up of “one-night stands” or of teens who decided that they weren’t ready for a sexual relationship after all. The average relationship lasted for six months.
  • Teen girls were more likely to have older partners. Among teens who have had sex, half (51 percent) of teen girls reported that their first sexual partner was at least two years older. Almost one in five teen girls had a partner who was considerably older-by four or more years.

“It may surprise parents, educators and the media to know that most teens describe their first sexual relationship as romantic, rather than as a casual “hook-up”,” said Suzanne Ryan, Ph.D., lead author and research associate at Child Trends.


  • Among teens who had sex, the majority (59 percent) of teens discussed contraception with their partner before they had sex for the first time.
  • More than one-fifth (22 percent) of sexually experienced teens reported never using contraception with their first sexual partner.

“The relatively short time span between starting a romantic relationship and initiating sexual intercourse provides a very small window of opportunity in which parents or service providers can intervene to encourage teens to delay initiating sex with that partner or to use contraception” stated Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D., senior research associate at Child Trends.

Differences by Ethnicity

  • Among sexually experienced teens, 17 percent of Hispanics experienced physical violence in their first sexual relationship, compared with six percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12 percent of non-Hispanic blacks.
  • Only half of sexually experienced Hispanic teens reported having a conversation about contraception with their partners in their first sexual relationship, compared with 61 percent of non-Hispanic white teens and 59 percent of non-Hispanic black teens.
  • Hispanic teens were less vigilant when it came to using contraception; 36 percent reported never using contraception during their first sexual relationship.

“Hispanic teens now have the highest teen birth rate in the country, and this research points to some of the reasons behind the numbers,” said Ryan. “While it seems that the messages about contraceptive use have gotten through to some teens, Hispanic teens in particular have a long way to go in preventing teen pregnancies and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.”

Differences by Age

  • Teens who have sex at the youngest ages (before age 15) are most likely to have older sexual partners. Half (50 percent) of teens who were 14 or younger when they first had sex had a sexual partner two or more years older, compared to 23 percent of teens who delayed having sex until they were at least 17.
  • Younger sexually experienced teens use contraception less consistently than teens who delay sex until older ages. Only 58 percent of teens who had sex by age 14 used a contraceptive method every time they had sex, compared to 70 percent of teens who delayed sex until age 17 or older.
  • Younger sexually experienced teens are less likely to use the most effective, hormonal methods of contraception.

“Our research suggests that encouraging younger teens to delay sexual intercourse may help improve their contraceptive use and reduce the risk of teen pregnancy and STDs,” said Manlove.

Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an nonprofit, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers.