What One Study Gets Wrong About Early Sexual Activity & Mood Disorders Later In Life

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The first time I had sex I was 14 years old. It was on the floor of the darkroom at my prestigious New England prep school. X was a year older than me and it had been love at first sight when I spotted him across the dining hall on orientation day. He definitely didn’t love me, but he was happy to have sex with me if I would let him.

I was, obviously, a child and certainly no one had talked to me about consent. Not in 1979.

I had sex with him because I thought if I did what he had been asking of me, he would love me back. And I would be happy, finally. Hopefully.

The connection between depression and early sexual activity

A recent study sought to find a causal relationship 

Recently, I came across an article reporting on a study that sought to learn if there is a “causal link between sexual activity early in life and major depressive disorder (MDD)”. Through their studies, researchers found “early sexual intercourse and having more sexual partners increased the risk of MDD…the analysis indicated that each additional year of delay in the age at first sexual intercourse was associated with a 6% reduction in the risk of MDD.”

Furthermore, they stated “identifying a causal effect of early sexual intercourse on MDD suggests that interventions aimed at delaying the age at first sexual intercourse may have potential benefits in preventing or reducing the risk of MDD.”

You know when something comes across your TV/computer/phone that you find incredibly frustrating and you start yelling at your screen in contradiction? That was me when this study came to my attention.

What the study appears to misunderstand 

When I was 42 years old, I had a nervous breakdown. I was into year nine of my marriage and the love/sex/alcohol that had been such a big part of our relationship, and a source of happiness for me, had been lost in the shuffle of raising a family.

I had stopped sleeping and eating, started seeking sex and love outside of my marriage, and was slowly circling the drain while not fully aware of it. One day, I found myself in a closet and was banging my head against the wall.

The next day, I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder II, characterized by major depressive disorder. I had never heard of BP or MDD so I set out to learn everything I could about it.

What I learned was, for me, sex/love was something I had used as a coping mechanism over the course of my life to help me manage those feelings of hopelessness and dread, the depression who was my constant companion.

I learned that when I was in love and having sex (particularly when I started having orgasms), my body would produce the “feel good” chemical of dopamine to temporarily help ease my depression. It wasn’t actually the love/sex I needed to be happy, like I believed, but the dopamine.

In the study, they conclude that interventions to prevent early sexual experiences might stave off depression. In other words, keeping kids away from sex will prevent them from developing depression in later life.

This is a classic conflation of causation and correlation, at least in the write-ups about the study. It’s important to note, however, that the available information for this study is limited, including how many participants were in the study and the exact methodology. This study was also done in China, which means its results may not translate well to teens in the USA.

What I have concluded, in my lifetime of “research” (a.k.a. living my life), is that intervention in my early sexual experience might actually have landed me in the head banging closet much earlier. It’s impossible to know what might have happened in an era when sex education was vastly different from the best and healthiest sex and health education programs are now, but I know that my lived insights into what a teen with early sexual activity should matter.

Three things to keep in mind when reading studies about early sexual activity in teens

1. Don’t assume you know the cause of related factors

Over the course of my 14 years, I had no memory of being happy.

From as young as 5 years old, my days were full of hopelessness and despair.

I never talked to anyone about how I felt — I just assumed everyone else hated the world as much as I did. I certainly didn’t have anyone to discuss my feelings with because there was no language available for me to do so. So, I lived with my horrible feelings and stumbled through the world.

My parents sent me off to boarding school at 13 in the hope I would crawl out of my shell a bit, make more friends, find success and, to some extent, I did. Being away from my unhappily married parents, surrounded by like-minded teens, gave me the space to believe my life might be a happy one someday.

A key part of that, I believed, was love. Spotting X on orientation day had literally made my heart leap, it had made me feel happy in a way I hadn’t felt before. I wanted more of it.

In my quest to be loved, to feel the feeling I had felt when I first saw him, I pursued X in a big way. Ultimately, we were ‘going out’ which meant we were ‘making out,’ he was ‘scoring bases’ and I was reveling in how happy I felt when I was with him, how much I loved him.

Before long, because X was asking me for it, I had sex with him. I am guessing I didn’t have an orgasm but I remember I felt loved and happy. And, once I had had sex, I wanted more.

X broke up with me pretty quickly and I was left heartbroken but, armed with the knowledge of how love/sex could lift my hopelessness and dread, I set out to find someone else to take his place.

Over the next four years, I had at least five sexual partners and probably more.

I would find someone I liked, get him to like me and ‘ask me out.’ We would be a couple for a while, and I would be happy. Then, we would have sex and he would break up with me, and I would be sad again.

I rode this roller coaster over and over to feel the buzz of sex/love, I was always willing to withstand the pain (and the judgement from others) it took to feel the buzz.

I continued this cycle of looking for love/sex to ease my pain into my twenties. I also discovered drugs and alcohol, another source of happiness, no matter how temporal. I found a man who was willing to love me, drink with me and have sex with me for the rest of our lives so I married him. I thought I was going to live happily ever after.

2. Don’t jump to conclusions about mood disorders

Mood disorders are still a mystery in so many ways, and any study being done to help stem the tsunami of depression and anxiety is valuable, but I believe targeting sex as the source of mental illness is just another flashy thing to throw at the wall and see if it sticks. It’s another way to stigmatize sex and to control women’s bodies.

What I really needed back in the day was someone who could see me for who I was. To recognize the ways I was struggling. To tell me they were there for me if I needed them. To have the resources available for when I was ready to use them.

So, a thought for researchers,: instead of stigmatizing sex for teens, once again, how about focusing on how we can open the conversation around sex and mental health in a way to actually helps instead of potentially making the situation worse.

While I do believe the ups and downs I experienced as a teen while seeking the dopamine hit I got from love/sex weren’t good for me in the short term, I know 100% that not having sex wouldn’t have made a difference in my mental health journey, and interference with my access to sex might have made things worse for me.

Today, I am well medicated and know healthy ways to get my doses of dopamine as needed. I have a robust, shame-free sex life with my husband and I am happy. Truly happy.

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Mitzi Bockmann is a New York City-based Certified Life Coach who believes everybody has the right to be happy.

Source: YourTango


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