- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2010

Two major federal reports came out recently on teen behavior. I think of them as federal “virginity” reports.

Both reports ask teens whether they have had sex yet.

Both reports are finding the same things: About 56 percent to 58 percent of teens, age 15 to 19, have not had sex yet. Moreover, this relatively high level of virginity has persisted since 2001.

What is going on here? Let’s review the data again and look at some of the proffered explanations.

Since 1991, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS) has asked thousands of high school students whether they have had sexual intercourse.

In the 1991 report, 54 percent of teens answered yes, they had had sex. This number drifted down over time, and by 2001, it reversed, with 54 percent of high school teens saying, no, they had not had sex yet.

The 2009 YRBS came out June 3, and it again finds that more than half of students — 54 percent — say they are virgins. This figure, of course, reflects overall figures for high schoolers’ sexuality. In certain subgroups, such as 12th graders, more than half of teens report having had sex.

But given America’s sex-saturated culture, it is stunning to see widespread virginity in five consecutive YRBS reports.

Some people pooh-pooh the survey’s data, saying that because it only surveys high school students, it misses the dropouts and other at-risk teens.

However, the federal government’s massive National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), also just released, finds similar levels of virginity in teens. Of “never-married” female teens, aged 15 through 19, 58 percent said they had not had sex. Of the male teens, 57 percent said the same, the National Center for Health Statistics said June 2.

These figures had “not changed significantly since the last NSFG, conducted in 2002,” it added.

So most U.S. teens are delaying sexual intercourse, at least through high school, when in the 1990s, they didn’t. Why the behavior shift? I don’t have the answers but am happy to list explanations given to me over the years.

Certainly, fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections may be playing a role in delaying sexual debut. Also, some teens may be switching to oral sex, thus remaining “technical” virgins, teen-sex experts say.

Some people suggest that when the economy was booming (pre-2005, of course), youngsters felt they had more opportunities in life and put sex on the back burner.

The boldest assertions come from abstinence-education proponents, who note that their messages were in full swing throughout the 2000s and say they helped ensure that “virgin” wasn’t a dirty word anymore.

I think the abstinence-education people make a strong case for themselves, but there’s also no doubt that every message they gave about abstinence was countered by “just do it” (sorry, Nike) messages from the popular culture, music, magazines, movies, TV shows and celebrity lifestyles. Parents even dress their babies in “I’m too sexy” onesies. So this decade-long streak of high teen virginity rates cannot be related to cultural trendiness.

I am wondering if we are seeing a genuine generational difference.

The teens who are saying “no, not yet” were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They are Generation Y, whose high school years were filled with news about “sexting,” booty calls, Gardasil and online pornography. They also were the first generation to hear the phrase “True Love Waits.”

Perhaps having sex just isn’t as radical or novel or imperative to Generation Y as it was to baby boomers and Generation X. Maybe Gen Y has decided that sex without love isn’t worth the hassle, and they would rather hold out for the real deal.

All I know is that when I started paying attention to federal teen sexual activity data in the early 1990s, most teens had sex, and now there is persistent evidence that most teens do not. There ought to be better explanations for this dramatic behavior shift.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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