URJHS Volume 7


Divorce, Its Implications on Children:
The Onset of Sexual Relationships in Adolescents

Christian Hubley, Andrew Freehauf, & Mack D. Miller
Huntington University


This study was designed to assess the effect of parental divorce on the onset/timing of first sexual intercourse in adolescents/young adults and to obtain demographic data. Undergraduate students at a Christian liberal arts university completed an anonymous 8-item questionnaire. The data from this study were analyzed, and no significance was found. This may have been due to a low response rate of 13 percent. The results of this study may raise other questions, such as the experience of subcultures of society and the influence of factors other than divorce.


There is a broad range of studies analyzing divorce as well as studies on sexual behavior of adolescents, and most are relatively consistent in their findings. Studies on divorce in particular indicate that divorce is a life-altering experience for children who must endure the actions of their parents (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). In addition to changing the immediate family structure, an initial divorce can begin a reoccurring divorce cycle which might be felt by generations to come (Amato & Cheadle, 2005; King, 2003).

The immediate effects of divorce have been found in children’s wellbeing, especially when compared to children from intact families (Amato, 2000). Children who have experienced divorce are more susceptible to a variety of problems ranging from emotional to academic (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999); these emotional problems from divorce may present themselves in a form of sexual activity at an earlier age. Wallerstein & Lewis (2004) indicated that girls who come from divorced families entered into sexual relationships at an earlier age than girls who came from intact families.

Divorce was shown to disengage the family structure, which contributed to the child’s initiation of sexual behavior (Blum, Beuhring, Shew, Bearinger, Sieving, & Resnick, 2000). With the loss of a family structure, the emotional support that comes with it could be lost (Upchurch, Aneshensel, Sucoff, & Levy-Storms, 1999). The loss of this emotional support from a parent was related to the age at which adolescent girls began sexual intercourse.

Studies on the sexual behavior of adolescents have indicated a growing trend in sexual activity in adolescents. Singh and Darroch (1999) indicated that in African-American women, ages 15-19, about 40 percent of all participants had participated in sexual intercourse in the three months prior to the study. One study indicated that adolescents’ transition into their first intercourse was mutually influenced and affected by both religious views and attitudes about sex and religion (Meier, 2003).

Another study suggested a possibility of inheritability in some sexual activities, including age at which adolescent males engaged in first intercourse (Mustanski, Viken, Kaprio, Winter, & Rose, 2007). One study suggested that adolescents with more positive attitudes, traditional social norms, and self-efficacy beliefs about refraining from sexual intercourse were more likely to delay the onset of the first intercourse when compared to other variables such as age, ethnicity, and parental education (Carvajal, Parcel, Basen-Engquist, Banspach, Coyle, Kirby, et al., 1999). McBride, Paikoff, and Holmbeck (2003) suggested that preadolescents who perceive greater conflict in the family were more likely to have early sexual intercourse.

Studies that have covered both topics of divorce and the sexual behavior of adolescents have generally indicated that there is a strong positive relationship between these two variables (D'Onofrio, Turkheimer, Emery, Heath, Madden, Slutske, et al. 2006; Kiernan & Hobcraft, 1997; Miller, Norton, Curtis, Hill, Schvaneveldt, & Young, 1997). Adolescents and young adults from divorced families enter into earlier relationships (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004) and have intercourse at a younger age (Kiernan & Hobcraft, 1997; Singh & Darroch, 1999) than adolescents and young adults from families that did not experience marital breakdown.

The onset of first sexual activities in adolescents and young adults has many additional contributing factors (Blum, Beuhring, Shew, Bearinger, Sieving, & Resnick, 2000; D'Onofrio, et al., 2006; Landew, 2006; Miller et al., 1997), not just the marital status of their parents. In general, most results were consistent with a causal role of divorce in earlier initiation of sexual intercourse (Upchurch, Aneshensel, Sucoff, & Levy-Storms, 1999; Whitbeck, Yoder, Hoyt, & Conger, 1999).

The scope of this present study was to test the hypothesis that full-time traditional students from a small religiously affiliated university in the Midwest who are from divorced families will have engaged in sexual intercourse at an earlier age than those who have not come from a divorced family.



Participants included 115 undergraduate college students enrolled at a small, private Christian liberal arts school in Indiana. The convenience sample consisted of students who voluntarily participated in the study . All undergraduate students were eligible to participate in this study because they all have campus mailboxes.


The research data were collected utilizing a survey. A self-administered questionnaire (Appendix A) was designed to elicit demographic information from the participants as well as their parent’s marital status and the student’s age at first sexual intercourse. The survey was piloted before its official administration. There is no known reliability or validity for the survey used in the study.

Definitions of terminology (i.e., intercourse, married, divorced, etc.) used in the survey were obtained from the permanent online source Dictionary.com. This source was published on the survey as a reference for any participant to use for clarification of the terms on the survey and for standardization of definitions used in the survey.


The survey began with three mailings: a notification email informing the recipient about the upcoming survey, the actual paper survey mailed via campus mail four days after the notification email, and a reminder email sent a week after the survey’s distribution.

The announcement of the study was sent through campus email and advertised campus wide. The survey was mailed to the student population on March 31, 2008, via campus mail boxes. The survey was completely anonymous so that each participant could feel comfortable answering all questions as honestly as possible. Because some participants may have felt uncomfortable with revealing their sexual preference and experiences or other personal information, making the survey anonymous was an attempt to help participants feel more relaxed and willing to be truthful when answering questions. On April 10 the researchers stopped collecting data and prepared the accumulated data for analysis.


Of the 900 surveys mailed, 115 (n = 115) surveys were returned for a 13 percent response rate. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 37 years of age. The participants were separated into two groups: group one contained all participants who had engaged in sexual intercourse (sexually active), and group two contained all participants who had not engaged in sexual intercourse (sexually inactive). The sexually active group contained 15 participants (n = 15); these 15 participants were then further separated into subgroups based on whether they had divorced parents (n = 10) or married parents (n = 5). The sexually active group was 13 percent of total participants. Table 1 summarizes the number of participants in each group, the average age, and the standard deviation of each group.

Table 1. Demographic Characteristics of the Sample


Group 1 (Sexually Active)

Group 2 (Not Sexually Active)

Group 1A (Married)

Group 1B (Divorced)

Group 2A (Married)

Group 2B (Divorced)

# of participants





Mean Age





Std. Dev.





Analysis of groups 1A and 1B was conducted using a two tailed t-test. The mean age of participants who experienced divorce was 18.8 years of age (SD = 1.14). The mean age of participants who did not experience divorce was 17.6 years of age (SD = 5.41). When the two subgroup means were compared using a two tailed t-test, no significant difference was found between the married and divorced sexually active groups. The t obtained was 0.696. When this obtained t was compared to a critical t-value of 2.16, the null hypothesis was retained.

Of the 115 total respondents, only 12.6 percent of their parents were divorced, whereas 87.4 percent were still married. Of the 13 percent (n = 15) of respondents who had engaged in sexual intercourse, 66.67 percent (n = 10) had parents who were still married whereas 33.33 percent (n =5) had parents who had divorced.


The hypothesis of this study was that full-time traditional students who were from divorced families would engage in sexual intercourse at an earlier age than those who did not come from a divorced family. This hypothesis was not supported by the results. The results obtained in this study conflict with much of the previous research regarding the relationship between divorce and the sexual behaviors of adolescents and young adults. The demographic results also do not support most previous research that notes the comparatively high prevalence of divorce in our culture.

The relevance of the question upon which we formed our hypothesis may be a question that should be directed to different subcultures of society individually (i.e., Does parental divorce influence the age of first sexual intercourse for all subcultures?). The results of this study may suggest that the onset of first sexual intercourse in adolescents and young adults may have more to do with lifestyle choices, religion, or peer pressure than the marital status of the participants’ parents.

The response rate likely included only a minute fraction of the participants who are sexually active. This is an anomaly according to current literature such as the study by Singh and Darroch (1999) that suggested there would be a much higher rate of sexually active people in a given population. The small number of sexually active participants could be due to some potential participants not responding for fear of being recognized because people engaging in sexual activity can be potentially ostracized at the university where the study was conducted.

However, the unusually small amount of participants admitting to engaging in sexual activity could be attributed to other influences as well. The participants of the study attend a Christian university, which indicates a possible religious connection. A person who is sexually active would most likely not attend a Christian university where sexual activity (outside marriage) is discouraged. This particular demographic anomaly was not readily apparent in previous studies. Previous studies did not solely focus on subcultures that embraced a Christian religious view but were more representative of the prevailing culture as a whole.

The present data should be interpreted cautiously. Of the 115 respondents, only 12.6 percent of their parents were divorced, whereas 87.4 percent of the parents were still married. The small number of respondents who had both divorced parents and also had sexual intercourse experience suggest that the findings are tentative and await further confirmation. The significantly larger number of students who have not engaged in sexual activity indicates that either there was a bias in the sampling technique or the participant population sampled is different from the normal population (especially when comparing it with previous literature).

These results may be due to the theologically conservative foundation of the university where participants are enrolled. The results may mirror the prevalence of the religious influence in participants’ daily campus activities and attitudes on sexual activity, or the results may reflect changing trends in divorce rates and sexual behaviors.

Although the results of the study do not support past literature, the results are still informative. The results appear to be representative of the population sampled. The measure for this study was piloted at a secular nonreligious unaffiliated college and with members of the local community, and no obvious problems were noted.

The current study has limited generalizability due to the small sample size, age range, and the relatively homogenous nature of the participants involved. The following assumptions were recognized for this study; the population studied was not as large as previous studies; the population was composed mostly of one ethnicity (Caucasian); and sexual attitudes are fairly conservative and not overtly expressed at the university where the study was conducted. Further research ought to test a more varied sample to facilitate external validity or should survey numerous Christian colleges to increase the number of subjects who meet the criteria.


Amato, P. (2000). The consequences of divorce for adults and children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 1269-1287.

Amato, P., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child well-being across three generations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 191-206.

Blum, R., Beuhring, T., Shew, M., Bearinger, L., Sieving, R., & Resnick, M. (2000). The effects of race/ethnicity, income, and family structure on adolescent risk behaviors. American Journal of Public Health, 90, 1879-1884.

Carvajal, S., Parcel, G., Basen-Engquist, K., Banspach, S., Coyle, K., Kirby, D., et al. (1999). Psychosocial predictors of delay of first sexual intercourse by adolescents. Health Psychology, 18(5), 443-452.

D'Onofrio, B., Turkheimer, E., Emery, R., Heath, A., Madden, P., Slutske, W., et al. (2006). A genetically informed study of the processes underlying the association between parental marital instability and offspring adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 42(3), 486-499.

Hetherington, E., & Stanley-Hagan, M. (1999). The adjustment of children with divorced parents: A risk and resiliency perspective. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 129-140.

Kiernan, K., & Hobcraft, J. (1997). Parental divorce during childhood: age at first intercourse, partnership and parenthood. Population Studies, 51(1), 41-55.

King, V. (2003). The legacy of a grandparent’s divorce: Consequences for ties between grandparents and grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 170-183.

Landew, S. (2006). A comparative study of the sexual behavior of college aged children from divorced and non-divorced families. (Doctoral dissertation) Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, 176, (ATT 321749).

McBride, C., Paikoff, R., & Holmbeck, G. (2003). Individual and familial influences on the onset of sexual intercourse among urban African American adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71(1), 159-167.

Meier, A. (2003). Adolescents' transition to first intercourse, religiosity, and attitudes about sex. Social Forces, 81(3), 1031-1052.

Miller, B., Norton, M., Curtis, T., Hill, E., Schvaneveldt, P., & Young, M. (1997). The timing of sexual intercourse among adolescents: Family, peer, and other antecedents. Youth and society, 29(1), 54-83.

Mueller, K., & Powers, W. (1990). Parent-child sexual discussion: Perceived communicator style and subsequent behavior. Adolescence, 25(98), 469.

Mustanski, B., Viken, R., Kaprio, J., Winter, T., & Rose, R. (2007). Sexual behavior in young adulthood: A population-based twin study. Health Psychology, 26(5), 610-617.

Singh, S., & Darroch, J. (1999). Trends in sexual activity among adolescent American women: 1982-1995. Family Planning Perspectives, 31(5), 212.

Upchurch, D., Aneshensel, C., Sucoff, C., & Levy-Storms, L. (1999). Neighborhood and family contexts of adolescent sexual activity. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 61, 920-933.

Wallerstein, J., & Lewis, J. (2004). The unexpected legacy of divorce. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21, 353-370.

Whitbeck, J., Yoder, K., Hoyt, D., & Conger, R. (1999). Early adolescent sexual activity: A developmental study. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 61, 934-946.

Appendix A
Survey PY/SO/SW 382

As part of an undergraduate research project at Huntington University we are conducting research. Your participation in this survey is completely voluntary but is critical for accurate results. We would like you to complete this questionnaire. All answers will be treated with strict confidence and are anonymous. We greatly appreciate your participation.

Section I. (Demographic information for statistical purposes)

Please fill in the blank or check the appropriate response for each question.

1. Age: ______

2. Gender: ______ Male ______Female

3. Classification:

_____ Freshman

_____ Sophomore

_____ Junior

_____ Senior

_____ Other (please specify __________________)

4 Place an “X” in the space that corresponds with the race or ethnic background that most accurately describes you:

______ White/Caucasian _______ Spanish/Hispanic/Latino

______ Black/African American _______ American Indian

______ Asian _______ Multiracial

______ Other (please specify ______________)

5. Marital status: ______ Single ______ Married


Section II. (Variables being analyzed in this research project)

Definitions of terminology (i.e., intercourse, married, divorced) used in this survey can be obtained from the permanent online source Dictionary.com. This source should be used by all participants for clarification of any unfamiliar terms.

1. Marital status of your biological parents:

______ They are currently married to each other.

______ They are currently divorced.

Please specify your age at time of divorce: ______

______ They were never married to each other.

2. How old were you when you first had sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex:

______ (years old)

______ This has not happened yet.

3. What is your current sexual orientation:

______ Heterosexual (opposite sex)

______ Homosexual (same sex)

______ Bi-Sexual (both sexes)

______ Other (please specify ______________)





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