Contrary to conventional wisdom, teens who have sex at an early age may not be headed down the road to delinquency. In fact, they may actually be less inclined to exhibit delinquent behavior in early adulthood—whether it’s drug use, criminal behavior or emotional problems—than peers who waited until they were older to have sex.

A team of UVA clinical psychologists published these surprising findings in the November edition of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Their study suggests that early intimacy may play a role in helping teens develop better social relationships in early adulthood. This latest research contradicts parts of a study published earlier in the same journal that found a connection between early teen sex and later behavioral problems.

“There is a cultural assumption in the United States that if teens have sex early, it is somehow bad for their psychological health,” says Kathryn Paige Harden (Grad ’10), the study’s lead author. “We actually found that teens who had sex earlier seem to have better relationships later. Now we want to find out why.”

Harden does not ignore the negative aspects of early adolescent sexuality, such as unwanted pregnancy and disease.

Researchers analyzed survey data on 534 pairs of twins, gathered at three different times between 1994 and 2002. Studying twins eliminated genetic and socio-economic variables that might otherwise influence adolescent behavior. The data was mined from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

“I doubt that early sexuality per se reduces delinquency,” says Robert Emery, a UVA professor of psychology and the study’s co-author. “Early sex is probably a proxy for a strong romantic relationship, and strong relationships—think marriage—encourage pro-social instead of antisocial behavior.”