Despite America’s hypersexual culture, most teens are postponing sex until their late teens or older, and when they do start, they typically use some kind of birth control, a new federal study says.
Overall, 57 percent of girls and 58 percent of boys, aged 15 to 19, said they had not had sexual intercourse, according to the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth.
These sexual activity rates are similar to what was seen in the 2002 survey, and reflect a “significant long-term decline” over the last 20 years, said Gladys Martinez, lead author of the report released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
“These trends are so encouraging … because they are moving in the right direction,” in spite of the sexualized culture, said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.
The NCHS report should “bust a number of myths” about teens and sex, said Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
For instance, it clearly shows that “not everyone is ‘doing it,’” he said. It also shows that teens are not out-of-control or into casual “hookups,” Mr. Albert said. Instead, they cite “religion and morals” as their main reason for not having sex yet, and, of those who have had sex, most did so with someone they are “going steady” with.
Contraceptive use is also widespread, with 78 percent of girls and 85 percent of boys using some method of contraception — typically a condom — at “first sex,” and 86 percent and 93 percent, respectively, reporting contraception at their “last sex.”
The new report shows that age is a big factor in sexual debut: About 72 percent of teens aged 15 to 17 had not had sex, but this reversed by ages 18 to 19, when about 62 percent reported having sexual intercourse at least once.
Still, these numbers are dramatically lower than those seen in 1988, when half of boys were having sex by age 17, and 72 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys were doing so by ages 18 or 19.
The new data “demonstrates that the sexual risk-avoidance approach is resonating with teens, and they are responding by increasingly choosing to wait for sex,” said Ms. Huber.
It prompts the question, “Why is there no meaningful emphasis on sexual risk-avoidance in current public policy? Shouldn’t we be reinforcing this healthy behavior in any way we can?” she asked. “Instead, at every turn, there is a message that is normalizing teen sex and teen sexual experimentation.”
Sexual behaviors adopted in the teens are leading to increasing numbers of births out of wedlock, added Heritage Foundation analysts Christine Kim and Robert Rector.
More than 40 percent of births are to unwed mothers, with many of them in the early 20s, they said. And by the 12th grade, “teen girls appear to be more sexually active than boys,” said Ms. Kim.
“What’s going on here? … We know that girls are more impacted by permissive sexual relationships than guys,” she said, citing Mark Regnerus’ new book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.
The NCHS report came from interviews with around 4,600 teens aged 15 to 19. They took the survey in their homes, with permission, with an interviewer.
Other highlights in the report, “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth”:
• Of sexually experienced teens, about 40 percent had had sex in the last 12 months.
• Of sexually experienced teens, 35 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys reported one sex partner. Seventeen percent of girls and 22 percent of boys reported “six or more” partners.
• Family composition mattered. Of teenage girls who lived with both their parents, only 35 percent were sexually experienced; of teenage girls who lived in “any other parental arrangement,” 54 percent were sexually experienced.
• Ninety-nine percent of sexually experienced girls report using a birth-control method. Condoms are the most commonly used contraceptive (96 percent), followed by “withdrawal” (57 percent) and “the pill” (56 percent). About 15 percent of teenage girls use “periodic abstinence” to prevent pregnancy, while 10 percent used “the patch.” Around 14 percent used “emergency contraception,” a product that must be used within 72 hours after unprotected sex.