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Keywords:

  • Behavior genetics;
  • behavioral disinhibition;
  • externalizing disorder;
  • gender differences;
  • sexual behavior

Background

Research has demonstrated a consistent relationship between early sexual experience and subsequent sexual risk-taking behaviors. We hypothesized that this relationship is due to a general predisposition toward behavioral disinhibition (BD), and that relationships among BD, early sex, and subsequent risky sexual behavior may be influenced by common genetic influences for males and common environmental influences for females.

Methods

A prospective sample of 1,512 same-sex adolescent twins (50.2% female) was used. Adolescent BD was measured by clinical symptom counts of conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and self-reported delinquent behavior (age 14). Age of sexual initiation was defined as first age of consensual oral or penetrative sex (mean age ~17). Adult risky sexual behavior was defined by sexual behaviors under the influence of drugs and alcohol and number of casual sexual partners in the past year (age 24).

Results

Multivariate analyses showed evidence for substantial common genetic variance among age 14 BD, age at sexual initiation, and adult risky sexual behavior for males, but not females. There was no significant difference in the degree of common environmental influence on these variables for females compared to males. Notably, age of sexual initiation was not significantly correlated with age 24 risky sexual behavior for females.

Conclusion

The relationship between early sex and later risky sex can be better understood through a general liability toward BD, which is influenced primarily by genetic factors for males. The association between age 14 BD and age of sexual initiation was influenced through a combination of genetic and environmental factors for females; however, age of sexual initiation does not appear to be a salient predictor of adult women's sexual risk-taking behavior. Findings suggest that prevention programs aimed at reducing sexual risk behavior might target youth exhibiting BD by age 14, particularly males. More research is needed on what predicts adult sexual risk-taking behavior for females.