Time Out from Sex or Romance: Sexually Experienced Adolescents' Decisions to Purposefully Avoid Sexual Activity or Romantic Relationships

J Youth Adolesc. 2016 May;45(5):831-45. doi: 10.1007/s10964-016-0447-9. Epub 2016 Mar 1.


Researchers have given significant attention to abstinence among adolescents, but far less is known about purposeful avoidance of sexual activity (and relationship involvement). Typically, it is assumed that, once adolescents have initiated sexual activity, they will thereafter engage in sexual activity if given the opportunity. However, it is unclear whether that is true as some research indicates that many adolescents engage in sexual activity intermittently. Sexually experienced adolescents may purposefully avoid engaging in sexual activity for a period of time and, if so, this has implications for understanding their sexual decision-making. We used a mixed methods approach to investigate sexually experienced adolescents' decisions to purposefully avoid further sexual activity and/or romantic relationships with a focus on how common these decisions are and factors influencing them. Participants were 411 (56 % female) adolescents (16-21 years old) who completed an on-line survey that assessed reasons for each type of avoidance, religiosity, sexual esteem, sexual distress, sexual coercion, and dysfunctional sexual beliefs. Overall, 27 % of participants had engaged in sexual avoidance and 47 % had engaged in romantic avoidance. Significantly more female than male adolescents reported sexual and romantic avoidance. Adolescents' reasons for sexual avoidance included: lack of sexual pleasure or enjoyment, relationship reasons, negative emotions, values, fear of negative outcomes, negative physical experience, and other priorities. Reasons for romantic avoidance included: effects of previous relationship, not interested in commitment, wrong time, other priorities, negative emotions, no one was good enough, and sexual concerns. Logistical regressions were used to assess associations between age, religiosity, sexual esteem, sexual distress, experience of sexual coercion, and dysfunctional sexual beliefs and having engaged in romantic and/or sexual avoidance. The female adolescents who had avoided sexual activity were more likely to have experienced sexual coercion. The male adolescents who had avoided sexual activity were more religious and likely to have experienced sexual coercion. The male adolescents who had avoided romantic relationships were more sexually distressed and likely to have experienced sexual coercion. No associations were found for romantic avoidance among female adolescents. These results reflect considerable agency in the decision-making of adolescents in intimate contexts. They are discussed in terms of their challenge to current discourses about rampant adolescent sexuality as well as their implications for education and prevention interventions that incorporate personal choice and decision-making into their protocols.

Keywords: Adolescents; Education; Prevention; Romantic avoidance; Sexual avoidance; Sexual coercion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sexual Abstinence / psychology*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Sexual Partners / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult