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CONTEXT: Despite the vast amount of existing research on adolescent sexual behavior, little is known about the trajectory of social, romantic and sexual events within an adolescent’s relationship.

METHODS: A subsample of participants in Wave 2 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (8,438 respondents aged 12–21) provided data on the sequence of 15 social, romantic and sexual events that occurred in a recent romantic relationship. Proportions reporting each event and average relative rankings were assessed for all respondents, for different racial and ethnic groups, and for respondents who belonged to the same racial or ethnic group as their partner. Logistic regression was used to compare proportions; ordinary least square regression was used to analyze the mean sequential ranking of each event.

RESULTS: Social and romantic events, such as spending time with one’s partner in a group and holding hands, were far more common than sexual events, such as touching one’s partner without clothing, and typically preceded sexual events in the trajectory of relationship events. Romantic events were the most common across three of the four major U.S. racial and ethnic groups. Asian and Hispanic respondents tended to have low proportions reporting sexual events compared with white respondents. Black adolescents were the only group for whom talking about prevention of pregnancy and STDs preceded sexual events. Reports from male and female adolescents were similar.

CONCLUSION: Recognition of the diversity of relationship experiences may prompt the development of more effective interventions for adolescents who engage in risky sexual behavior.