Time Out! Teens Taking a Break from Sex or Romance

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Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

Researchers have long been concerned about the pressures adolescents experience to become and remain sexually active.  They have explored in great deal how many adolescents abstain from sex, that is, delay the first occasion that they engage in sex.  Usually the focus has been on penile-vaginal intercourse because of concerns about pregnancy and disease, but also because of a bias toward exploring male-female partnered interactions.

We were interested instead in how often young people who had already started a partnered sexual life decided freely to take a break from sex—to stop for a while, for whatever reasons.  We also wanted to know how often this happened for all types of sex and among all types of partnerships.  In addition, we wanted to know whether adolescents also took a break from romance—avoiding relationships and intimate contexts—and why they might do so.

Drs. Sandra Byers, Lucia O’Sullivan, and Lori Brotto surveyed 411 adolescents (16-21 years) about a range of sexual and romantic experiences, but one set of questions asked about breaks from sex or romance. About one-quarter (27%) reported that they had taken a break from sex and almost half (47%) had taken a break from romance.  More female than male adolescents reported taking a break.

Here are the most common reasons for taking a break from sex: 

  • Lack of sexual pleasure or enjoyment from the sex that they were having (“It’s unsatisfying”)
  • Tension in their relationship
  • Negative emotions (such as feeling used)
  • Values (“I wanted to feel like a better person”)
  • Fear of negative outcomes (such as sexually transmitted infections)
  • Other priorities (“Sex is distracting and I really needed to focus on my grades”)

Most common reasons for taking a break from romance:

  • Getting over a difficult breakup (“There were lots of problems; I was exhausted”)
  • Not interested in commitment (“Romance means commitment usually and I wasn’t interested right now”)
  • Wrong timing (“I was going through a lot of stress. It was not a good time to be trying to start a relationship”)
  • Other priorities
  • No one seems good enough(“I’m through with dating people I know I won’t like”)
  • Sexual concerns

This last reason is interesting as some of those reporting a break from romance did so to avoid the pressures of sex.