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Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce

Joan R. Kahn and Kathryn A. London
Journal of Marriage and Family
Vol. 53, No. 4 (Nov., 1991), pp. 845-855
DOI: 10.2307/352992
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/352992
Page Count: 11
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Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce
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Abstract

This article examines the relationship between premarital sexual activity and the long-term risk of divorce among U.S. women married between 1965 and 1985. Simple cross-tabulations from the 1988 National Survey of Family Growth indicate that women who were sexually active prior to marriage faced a considerably higher risk of marital disruption than women were were virgin brides. A bivariate probit model is employed to examine three possible explanations for this positive relationship: (a) a direct causal effect, (b) an indirect effect through intervening "high risk" behaviors (such as having a premarital birth or marrying at a young age), and (c) a selectivity effect representing prior differences between virgins and nonvirgins (such as family background or attitudes and values). After a variety of observable characteristics are controlled, nonvirgins still face a much higher risk of divorce than virgins. However, when the analysis controls for unobserved characteristics affecting both the likelihood of having premarital sex and the likelihood of divorce, the differential is no longer statistically significant. These results suggest that the positive relationship between premarital sex and the risk of divorce can be attributed to prior unobserved differences (e.g., the willingness to break traditional norms) rather than to a direct causal effect.

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