The Significance of Sexual Debut in Women’s Lives

  • Susan SprecherEmail author
  • Lucia F. O’Sullivan
  • Michelle Drouin
  • Julie Verette-Lindenbaum
  • Marion C. Willetts
Female Sexual Dysfunction and Disorders (T Lorenz and R Nappi, Section Editors)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Female Sexual Dysfunction and Disorders


Purpose of Review

For decades, researchers have been examining the correlates, outcomes, and contexts related to sexual debut. Early inquiries employed mostly retrospective methods with convenience samples, focusing on the negative correlates of early sexual debut. However, recent research has been more nuanced, using longitudinal methods with nationally representative samples around the globe, accounting for relevant covariates, and examining the correlates of early, later, and nonexistent sexual debut. In this review, we discuss the significance of the timing and context of sexual debut for women’s sexual lives, focusing especially on the new conceptualizations and insights gained from research in the past five years.


Although early sexual debut relative to one’s peers typically has been considered problematic in terms of later sexual health and psychological well-being, more recent research has demonstrated that other factors, including individual characteristics and family and peer influences, are co-occurring risk factors that may better explain these significant relationships. More recent research has demonstrated that sexual competence at debut (i.e., maturity and preparedness) has greater predictive utility of later sexual health and wellness, including positive affect and appraisals of sexual desirability.

Summary and Future Directions

From both a sociocultural and a methodological perspective, the framing of sexual debut has changed considerably in the past few decades. Accordingly, it is time to reconsider the framing of sexual debut to account for the wide range of sexual activities and relationship configurations that exist. Moreover, the study of sexual debut needs to include the individual, sociocultural, and contextual factors that might influence the way that the event is interpreted in an individual’s lifelong sexual trajectory.


Sexual debut First sexual intercourse Age of sexual onset Adolescents Sexual competence Predictors of women’s sexual health 



The authors would like to thank Nyah Byers for assistance with the reference list.

Compliance With Ethical Standard

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Sprecher
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lucia F. O’Sullivan
    • 2
  • Michelle Drouin
    • 3
  • Julie Verette-Lindenbaum
    • 4
  • Marion C. Willetts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology & AnthropologyIllinois State UniversityNormalUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of New BrunswickFrederictonCanada
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyPurdue University Fort WayneFort WayneUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyRussell Sage College – New YorkTroyUSA

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