Effects of Divorce on Children's Sexual Activity

1. Attitudes About Sexual Behavior

(See Effects of Divorce on Children's Future Relationships)

When parents divorce, their children’s attitudes about sexual behavior change. Children’s approval of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce rises dramatically, while their endorsement of marriage and childbearing falls.1) Children from divorced families are also more likely to believe that marriage is not important prior to having children and are more likely to have a child out of wedlock. This holds true even after controlling for socioeconomic status.2) Furthermore, sexual permissiveness on the part of divorced parents significantly increases permissive attitudes and behavior in both their sons and daughters.3)

Children from divorced families have an earlier sexual debut than children from intact families.4) This also holds true for children raised without a biological father present.5)

1.1 Girls

American6) and British7) studies repeatedly show that daughters of divorced parents will be more likely to approve of premarital sexual intercourse8) and teen sexual activity,9) and to engage in early sexual intercourse outside of marriage; similar results are shown among fatherless households in general.10) The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth reports that African-American girls are 42 percent less likely to have sexual intercourse before age 18 if their biological father is present at home.11) By contrast, the presence of a stepfather increases by 72 percent the likelihood of sexual intercourse before age 18 for Latino girls.12)

In addition to an increased likelihood of being sexually active, girls from divorced families are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, to have more frequent sexual intercourse, and to have more sexual partners.13) In a study comparing girls from New Zealand and the United States, researchers found that the earlier a father leaves the home, the higher his daughter’s risk of early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. In the United States, girls whose fathers had left before their daughters were five years old were eight times more likely to become pregnant while adolescents than were girls whose fathers remained in the home.14)

1.2 Boys

For sons, parental divorce and father absence is correlated with adolescent sexual intercourse, earlier sexual debut,15) and the acquisition of a sexually transmitted disease.16) Other studies have confirmed that male children of divorce have more relationships and more sexual partners than young men from intact families.17)

The influences of divorce on sexual behavior extends into adulthood: Adults raised in divorced families are more likely to engage in short sexual affairs and also have more sexual partners than adults from intact families.18)

According to the Adolescent Health Survey, girls in grades 7-12 living in intact married families have the fewest sexual partners (0.71 sexual partners) of all family structure. Girls living in stepfamilies (1.39 partners) and divorced families (1.29 partners) tend to have the highest number of sexual partners.19) (See Chart Below)

Sexual Intercourse Partners for Girls by Family Structure

2. Sexual Behaviors

Virginity among teenagers of all ages correlates closely with the presence of married parents.20) Each change in family structure during adolescence (from married to divorced, from single to married, or from divorced to stepfamily) increases the risk of initiation of sexual intercourse for many of the teenage children in these unions.21)

The children of divorce date more and thus have a higher turnover of dating partners and more failed romantic relationships,22) which may contribute to a larger number of sexual partners,23) a risk factor for the acquisition of sexually transmitted diseases24) and a host of emotional repercussions. Children with divorced parents tend to have lower relationship quality.25) Even without the addition of a working mother, divorce leads to an above-average number of sexual partners for the children of divorce as adults.26)

Following a divorce, most mothers have to work full-time. This combination of divorce and a full-time working mother leads to the highest level of teenage sexual activity27) and is significantly correlated with multiple sexual partners in adult life.28)

3. Pregnancy

Women whose parents separated during childhood are more likely to have an out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy,29) and men with divorced or separated parents are more likely to father a child with a teenage mother.30) In Britain, the phenomenon of out-of-wedlock pregnancy to children of divorced parents has also been found.31)

4. Abortion

Daughters of divorced parents have more abortions than the daughters of non-divorced parents, according to a Finnish study.32)

5. Future Relationship Stability

Marriage trends are driven by sexual decisions—chastity and monogamy, or their opposite, polyamory. This chart shows the status of American marriages five years into the marriage. Among both men and women who have never had any sexual partner other than their spouse (ie. they were totally monogamous), 97 percent of women and 99 percent of men were still married. For women who had one extra sexual partner (for most, before marriage) only 64 percent were still married—a drop of 33 percent, which is twice the rate of men. For those women who had two sexual partners outside of marriage, only 55 percent were still married five years down the road.

Men and Women in First Marriage by Number of Sexual Partners

Clearly, the more sexual partners an individual has, the less he/ she is capable to sustain marriage. This is especially true for women, who experience a steeper and more significant reduction in marital security with each additional non-marital or extra-marital partner.

1) William G. Axinn and Arland Thornton, “The Influence of Parents’ Marital Dissolutions on Children’s Attitudes toward Family Formation,” Demography 33, (1996): 66-81.
William H. Jeynes, “The Effects of Recent Parental Divorce on Their Children’s Sexual Attitudes and Behavior,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 35, (2001): 125.
2) William H. Jeynes, “The Effects of Recent Parental Divorce on Their Children’s Sexual Attitudes and Behavior,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 35, (2001): 125.
3) Les B. Whitbeck, Ronald L. Simons, and Meei-Ying Kao, “The Effects of Divorced Mother’s Dating Behaviors and Sexual Attitudes on the Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors of Their Adolescent Children,” Journal of Marriage and Family 56, (1994): 615-621. As cited in Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, House of Representatives, Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships (Canberra, Australia: Parliament of Australia, 1998), 36.
4) , 18) Fridrik H. Jónsson, Urdur Njardvik, Gudlaug Ólafsdóttir, and Sigurdur J. Grétarsson, “Parental Divorce: Long-term Effects on Mental Health, Family Relations, and Adult Sexual Behavior,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 41, (2000): 103.
5) Jane K. Mendle, Paige Harden, Eric Turkheimer, Carole A. Van Hulle, Brian M. D’Onofrio, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Joseph L. Rodgers, Robert E. Emery, and Benjamin B. Lahey, “Associations Between Father Absence and Age of First Sexual Intercourse,” Child Development 80, no. 5 (2009): 1463-1464.
6) E. Mavis Hetherington, Martha Cox, and Roger Cox, “Long-term Effects of Divorce and Remarriage on the Adjustment of Children,” Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 24, (1985): 518-530.
Kinnaird and Gerrard (1986). As cited in D. Larson, The Costly Consequences of Divorce (Rockville, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1995), 165.
7) Kathleen E. Kiernan, “The Impact of Family Disruptions in Childhood on Transitions Made in Young Adult Life,” Population Studies 46, (1992): 213-234.
8) William G. Axinn and Arland Thornton, “The Influence of Parents’ Marital Dissolution on Children’s Attitudes toward Family Formation,” Demography 33, (1996): 66-81.
9) Arland Thornton, and Donald Camburn, “The Influence of the Family on Premarital Sexual Attitudes and Behavior,” Demography 24, (1987): 323-340.
10) Arland Thornton and Donald Camburn, “The Influence of the Family on Premarital Sexual Attitudes and Behavior,” Demography 24, (1987): 329-337; these findings hold regardless of ethnic background.
Carolyn A. Smith, “Factors Associated with Early Sexual Activity Among Urban Adolescents,” Social Work 42, (1997): 334-346.
Kathleen E. Kiernan and John Hobcraft, “Parental Divorce during Childhood: Age at First Intercourse, Partnership and Parenthood,” Population Studies 51, (1997): 41-55.
Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien O. Teitler, “Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?” Journal of Family Issues 15, (1994): 179.
Rebecca M. Ryan, “Nonresident Fatherhood and Adolescent Sexual Behavior: A Comparison of Siblings Approach,” Developmental Psychology 51, no. 2 (February 2015): 211, 219.
11) , 12) R. Day, “The Transition to First Intercourse among Racially and Culturally Diverse Youth,” Journal of Marriage and Family 54, (1992): 749-762.
13) A. Biglan, C.W. Metzler, R. Wirt, D. Ary, J. Noell, L. Ochs, C. French and D. Hood, “Social and Behavioral Factors Associated with High-Risk Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 13, (1990): 245–261; J.O. G. Billy, K.L. Brewster and W.R. Grady, “Contextual Effects of The Sexual Behavior of Adolescent Women,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 56, (1994): 387–404; Bruce J. Ellis, John E. Bates, Kenneth A. Dodge, David M. Fergusson, L. John Horwood, Gregory S. Pettit, and Lianne Woodward, “Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy?” Child Development 74, (2003): 801–821; Robert L. Flewelling and Karl E. Bauman, “Family Structure as a Predictor of Initial Substance Use and Sexual Intercourse in Early Adolescence,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52, (1990): 171–181; L.L. Meschke, J.M. Zweig, B.L. Barber, and J.S. Eccles, “Demographic, Biological, Social, and Psychological Correlates of The Timing of First Intercourse,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 10, (2000): 315–338; Ronald L. Simons and Associates, Understanding Differences Between Divorced and Intact Families (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996). As cited in Jenifer K. McGuire and Bonnie L. Barber, “A Person-Centered Approach to the Multifaceted Nature of Young Adult Sexual Behavior,” Journal of Sex Research 47, no. 4 (2010): 308, 310.
14) Bruce J. Ellis, John E. Bates, Kenneth A. Dodge, David M. Fergusson, L. John Horwood, Gregory S. Pettit, and Lianne Woodward, “Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy?” Child Development 74, no. 3 (2003): 810-811.
15) Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien O. Teitler, “Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?” Journal of Family Issues 15, (1994): 173-190.
J. Mendle, K.P. Harden, E. Turkheimer, C.A. Van Hulle, B.M. D’Onofrio, J. Brooks-Gunn, J.L. Rodgers, R.E. Emery, and B.B. Lahey, “Associations Between Father Absence and Age of First Sexual Intercourse,” Child Development 80, no. 5 (2009): 1463-1464.
16) , 30) R.F. Anda, D.P. Chapman, V.J. Felitti, V. Edwards, D.F. Williamson, J.B. Croft, and W.H. Giles, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Risk of Paternity in Teen Pregnancy,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 100, (2002): 37-45.
17) Ed Spruijt and Vincent Duindam, “Problem Behavior of Boys and Young Men after Parental Divorce in the Netherlands,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 34, no. 3/4 (2005): 150.
19) This chart draws on a large national sample (16,000) from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Waves I and II. This work was done by the author in cooperation with former colleagues at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Patrick F. Fagan, “Family Structure and Sexual Intercourse Partners—Adolescent Girls,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF08K28.pdf
20) Deborah M. Capaldi, Lynn Crosby, and Mike Stoolmiller, “Predicting the Timing of First Sexual Intercourse for At-Risk Adolescent Males,” Child Development 67, (1996): 344-359.
21) Chris Albrecht and Jay D. Teachman, “Childhood Living Arrangements and the Risk of Premarital Intercourse,” Journal of Family Issues 24, (2003): 867-894.
Robert J. Quinlan, “Father Absence, Parental Care, and Female Reproductive Development,” Evolution and Human Behavior 24, (2003): 376–390.
22) Medical Institute for Sexual Health, Sexual Health Today (Austin, TX: Medical Institute of Sexual Health, 1997), 105.
23) Alan Booth, David B. Brinkerhoff, and Lynn K. White, “The Impact of Parental Divorce on Courtship,” Journal of Marriage and Family 46, (1984): 85-94; Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien O. Teitler, “Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?” Journal of Family Issues 15, (1994): 173-190; S. Newcomer and J.R. Udry, “Parental Marital Status Effects on Adolescent Sexual Behavior,” Journal of Marriage and Family 49, (1987): 235-240. As cited in Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, A Generation at Risk, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
24) Thomas R. Eng and William T. Butler, eds., The Hidden Epidemic: Confronting Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997), chapters 3 and 4, 69-174.
25) , 26) Robert J. Quinlan, “Father Absence, Parental Care, and Female Reproductive Development,” Evolution and Human Behavior 24, (2003): 376–390.
27) J.O. G. Billy (1994). As cited in David Larson, The Costly Consequences of Divorce (Rockville, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1995), 131.
28) Seidman, Mosher, and Aral (1994). As cited in D. Larson, The Costly Consequences of Divorce (Rockville, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1995), 131.
29) Robert J. Quinlan, “Father Absence, Parental Care, and Female Reproductive Development,” Evolution and Human Behavior 24, (2003): 376–390.
Kathleen E. Kiernan and John Hobcraft, “Parental Divorce during Childhood: Age at First Intercourse, Partnership and Parenthood,” Population Studies 51, (1997): 41-55.
Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien O. Teitler, “Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?” Journal of Family Issues 15, (1994): 173-190.
Sara McLanahan and Larry Bumpass, “Intergenerational Consequences of Family Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology 94, (1988): 130-152.
31) Andrew J. Cherlin, Kathleen E. Kiernan, and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, “Parental Divorce in Childhood and Demographic Outcomes in Young Adulthood,” Demography 32, (1995): 299-316.
32) Hillevi M. Aro and Ulla K. Palosaari, “Parental Divorce, Adolescence, and Transition to Young Adulthood: A Follow-up Study,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 63, (1992): 425.


This entry draws heavily from The Effects of Divorce on Children.