While past research has linked early sexual activity to health problems, a new study suggests that waiting too long to start having sex carries risks of its own.
Those who lose their virginity at a later age -- around 21 to 23 years of age -- tend to be more likely to experience sexual dysfunction problems later, say researchers at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute's HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies.
The study will appear in the January 2008 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Men who lose their virginity in their 20s, in particular, seemed to be more likely to experience sexual problems that include difficulty becoming sexually aroused and reaching orgasm.
The increase in sexual problems was also seen in those who had a comparably earlier sexual debut. And the researchers were quick to point out that there isn't enough evidence to say for sure whether waiting to have sex necessarily leads to sexual dysfunction down the road.
"Our results do not allow for causal interpretations," the study authors write.
Rather, they note in the study, there may be factors common to both the delay of sexual activity and the onset of sexual dysfunction -- for example, they write, "[M]en with sexual problems may avoid sexual interactions and consequently start later."
The researchers, who looked at data from the 1996 National Sexual Health Survey, conducted by the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) at the University of California, San Francisco, also found that men and women who begin having sex in their early teens had their share of problems. They were more likely to have risky sexual partners, to contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and to have sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
While sexuality experts not affiliated with the study agree that it is too early to draw a direct causal link about those who have sex later in life, they say the research offers some interesting new avenues for learning more about certain sexual problems that may be devastating to long-term relationships.
"Clinically, we see many individuals who marry late and who have had little or no sexual experience have great difficulty with developing a rich and satisfying sexual experience within their relationship," said Eli Coleman, academic chair in sexual health at the University of Minnesota Medical School Program in Human Sexuality.
"Sexual dysfunction is common. Difficulty in consummating the marriage is also a frequent problem," he added.
Even though the research stops short of indicating a causal relationship between the age at which one loses his or her virginity and sexual problems they may experience later, Coleman said a number of possible factors could contribute to both of these things.
"From a clinical standpoint, there are often dynamics other than the desire to be abstinent until marriage, such as fear of intimacy, body image problems, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual dysfunction," he said. He adds that these factors "might influence the delay of sexual debut as a means of avoiding sexual issues."
Conditioning that results in shame over sexual expression may also be a factor, said Gina Ogden, a Boston-based sexuality expert and author of "The Heart and Soul of Sex."