Harris was 21 years old when he met his first girlfriend.
They sat next to each other in a seminar on global health in college. He hadn’t been looking for a romantic encounter; it just happened. His friends applauded; his family sighed with relief that, finally, their “precious boy” had met a nice girl. “I don’t know what all the fuss was about,” he says. “I just wasn’t interested in dating before.”
Sexual late bloomers are often regarded as odd or even dysfunctional by society. But some emerging research takes the side of young people like Harris: Teenagers who don’t date are likely doing just fine — and in some respects, may be better off than their coupled-up peers.
Adolescence is said to be a time for sexual exploration. And studies dating back to the 1980s confirm that Americans between the ages of 15 and 18 take to coupling up. Going back even further, dating was thought of as an important developmental step for teens in the 1950s. Famed American neurobiologist Lewis L. Judd argued in 1967 that having “appropriate sexual identity” can lead to the development of meaningful relationships. And popular culture, of course, reinforces the notion that dating in your teens is the norm, from Sixteen Candles to 10 Things I Hate About You to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
In line with Judd’s assertions, psychology researchers studying adolescent behavior have long thought that intimate relationships are valuable opportunities for teens to acquire social skills, develop an identity, and learn more about their own sexuality. “The formation of romantic relationships is often thought to be one of the important developmental tasks of adolescence… and these relationships have significant implications for health and adjustment,” writes Wyndol Furman, a University of Denver professor and director of The Relationship Center.
Yet, in a sample of over 5,000 students aged 13 to 18 years, less than half (47.2%) said they had a girlfriend or a boyfriend. That percentage was higher for LGBTQ teens, at 63.6%. According to Pew Research Center, just 35% of 13 to 17 year olds had been in a romantic relationship and less than a third (30%) of them had had sex before.
So, if dating is supposedly beneficial for adolescent development, but only half of teens actually date at that age, is the other half somehow at a disadvantage?
Brooke Douglas at the University of Georgia has been wondering the same thing. “Does this mean that teens who don’t date are maladjusted in some way? That they are social misfits?” To answer that question, Douglas recently analyzed dating scores from almost 600 high school students in 10th grade across school districts in Northeast Georgia.
Sexual late bloomers are often regarded as odd or even dysfunctional by society. But are teens who don’t date during adolescence somehow abnormal?
Students were asked about their friendships and how they felt about their home and school lives. The researchers also surveyed for depression symptoms such as feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Simultaneously, they collected responses from teachers about the students’ social and leadership skills, and their perceived depression levels.
What they found may help quiet the critical voices.
Students who didn’t date reported lower levels of depression than their peers in relationships. What’s more, students who weren’t seeing someone had better social skills. “Non-dating students are doing well and are simply following a different and healthy developmental trajectory than their dating peers,” explains Pamela Orpinas, a professor of health promotion and behavior and a co-author of the study. Late bloomers may even experience stronger family relationships and be more committed to their education.
On the other hand, a paper published in 2007 found an association between adolescents who started dating early and alcohol and drug use. It’s not the first time that scientists have looked at the connection between early dating and alcohol and drug use. Research conducted at the University of Iowa in 1993 found that alcohol consumption was higher in U.S. Midwestern high school students who dated frequently. A survey of 664 Canadian high schoolers found similar results — drug use correlated with dating. The authors argue that “alcohol and drug use serve some constructive functions such as improving acceptance among peers who admire teens who take risks and creating a sense of maturity.”
But it’s important not to overlook the role of experimentation in the teenage years. Teens who explore their sexuality may be equally happy to experiment more aggressively in other areas of their lives. “Teens are in a discovery mode,” explains Frances Jensen, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. “They’re experiencing new things, and their brains are developing accordingly. There’s simply a lot going on in their brains.”
But it’s not just time of confusion for teens as Jensen suggests. According to Douglas’ research, teens who were in relationships were also more depressed.
The average length of a romantic relationship for 14-year-olds to 15-year-olds is eight months. This means that break-ups are fairly common and teens are left to feel sad and lonely as they cope. Adolescent relationships also tend to be less close. In other words, teens rely on their parents and friends more for support — an aspect which changes as we age and mature.
Perhaps it’s time to change our attitudes toward high school students who choose not to couple up. “As public health professionals, we can do a better job of affirming that adolescents do have the individual freedom to choose whether they want to date or not and that either option is acceptable and healthy,” Orpinas added.
When teens begin to question their self-worth based on their high school dating history, they may become desperate. The internet is full of youngsters inquiring about the relationship histories of others. And it’s not just teens. Those who end up not dating into their early twenties often feel like they need to play catch-up with their peers.
“I’m a university senior… and have never dated or kissed. Is that normal?” a Reddit user asks. “Maybe I’m ugly, maybe I stand too close to people when I talk to them, maybe I have weird mannerisms in my face that deter people. There are so many things I could be doing that are the cause of my problems and I won’t even know it. Without sincere friends to do a social assessment of me, I’ll never have answers.”
There’s a danger in tying dating experimentation during adolescence to any definition of “normal.” Fitting in is a universal teen sport. Adolescents spend much of their time trying to find their place in society. But maybe the evidence is stacking up that those who feel they don’t “belong” have no reason to worry.
Just as we’ve come to accept that teens flock to social media to express themselves, or that kids require play in school to develop their creativity and foster positive associations with their learning environment, so, too, can we give adolescents the courage to move beyond outdated social norms and develop healthy self-esteem.
Katie, now 24, didn’t meet her first boyfriend until late last year. “My parents never pressured me to meet boys. They were always supportive of my choices.” She says she loves spending time with her beau, but doesn’t feel as if she’s missed out on anything during high school. “I experimented in many other ways, like through art and hobbies.”
Teens should be allowed to explore their sexuality whenever they feel ready. After all, dating is not a race to the finish line.
Harris is content with the choices he’s made, at ease with being labelled a late bloomer by some. “I don’t think I’m socially any more awkward than my peers just because I didn’t have a girlfriend in school.” But he wishes his parents would have been a little more accepting. “Even as a teenager, I was old enough to know what felt good and right to me. Love is something most of us will explore all throughout our lives. It shouldn’t matter when we begin.”