Sexually Active Teens

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About one-third of high school students report they are sexually active. This overall percentage has not changed greatly since 1991.   An exception is a significant decrease among black students, where the proportion who are sexually active declined from 59 percent in 1991 to 42 percent in 2013.

Importance

Sexually active teenagers—defined as those who have had sexual intercourse in the past three months—are at immediate risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Teens who engage in certain sexual behaviors—for example, teens who don’t use contraceptives, use contraceptives inconsistently, or have multiple sex partners—have an even higher risk. [1],[2] Though cause and effect are difficult to disentangle, sexually active youth are also more likely than youth who are not sexually active to report problems with substance abuse[3] and depression[4], as well as have lower levels of educational attainment.[5]

Research has identified several factors associated with delaying the onset of sexual activity among teens. Teens who grow up in stable families with more resources,[6] who communicate with their parents about sex,[7] who express more religiosity,[8] and who are more connected to their schools [9] are more likely to delay sexual intercourse, whereas those who engage in delinquent activities, or who have higher levels of externalizing behaviors (acting out), have an increased risk of early sexual activity.[10],[11]

Trends

23_Fig1The share of high school students who are sexually active has fluctuated since 1991, ranging from 33 to 38 percent. In 2013, 34 percent of high school students reported being sexually active. (Appendix 1) Among black students, however, the proportion who reported they were sexually active decreased from 59 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2011, before increasing slightly to 42 percent in 2013. (Figure 1)

 

 

Differences by Gender

23_Fig2Roughly a third of both male and female high school students reported being sexually active in 2013 (33 and 35 percent, respectively). In 2013, black male students were slightly more likely than black female students to report being sexually active (47 and 38 percent, respectively). There was no statistically significant difference in the prevalence of sexual activity between white or Hispanic males and their female peers. (Figure 2)

 

 

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin[12]

Black high school students are more likely than white students to report being sexually active (42 percent compared with 33 percent, in 2013). Hispanic students were not significantly different from either white or black students in 2013. This gap between black student and those of other races and ethnicities has decreased since 1991, when blacks were nearly twice as likely as students in the other two groups to report being sexual active. (Figure 1)

The racial/ethnic gap is wider among males. Black males were the most likely to report being sexually active (47 percent), followed by Hispanic males (35 percent). White male students were the least likely to report being sexually active (30 percent). There were no significant differences by race among female students. (figure 2)

Differences by grade

23_Fig3The likelihood of being sexually active increases with age, by eight to twelve percentage points each year. In 2013, 20 percent of ninth-grade students reported they were sexually active, compared with 49 percent of twelfth-graders. The difference was slightly greater among female students. (Figure 3)

 

 

 

 

State and Local Estimates

2013 estimates of sexual activity among high school students (Grades 9-12) are available for select states and cities from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

International Estimates

International estimates can be found at UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center.

National Goals

Through its Healthy People 2020 initiative, the federal government has set a national goal to increase the proportion of adolescents, male and female, who have received formal instruction on how to say no to sex, or who have talked with a parent or guardian about how to say no to sex.

More information is available here. (goals FP 13 and FP 12)

What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator

A variety of programs and policies—including comprehensive family life education, access to contraceptive care, and youth development programs—have been linked both to delays in age at first sex and to healthier sexual behaviors among those who have engaged in sex.[13]

See Ball, V., and Moore, K. A. (2008). What works for adolescent reproductive health: Lessons from experimental evaluations of programs and interventions. A Child Trends Fact Sheet.

See also the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health’s list of interventions meeting its criteria for effectiveness in pregnancy prevention.

Also, see Child Trends’ LINKS database (“Lifecourse Interventions to Nurture Kids Successfully”), for reviews of many rigorously evaluated programs, including the following which have been shown to be effective at reducing or delaying sexual activity:

Related Indicators

Definition

Students who are sexually active are those students who reported having had sexual intercourse in the three months preceding the survey. Thus, it is possible for a student to have had sexual intercourse in their lifetime but not be sexually active.

Data Source

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014). 1991-2013 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Accessed on 7/22/2014. Available at http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/

Raw Data Source

Youth Risk Behavior Survey

http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/yrbs/index.htm

 

Appendix 1 - Percentage of High School StudentsWho Report Having Had Intercourse Within the Last Three Months: Selected  Years, 1991-2013

1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013
All Students 37.5 37.5 37.9 34.8 36.3 33.4 34.3 33.9 35.0 34.2 33.7 34.0
Race/Ethnicity3
Non-Hispanic White 33.9 34.0 34.8 32.0 33.0 31.3 30.8 32.0 32.9 32.0 32.4 23.8
Non-Hispanic Black 59.3 59.1 54.2 53.6 53.0 45.6 49.0 47.4 46.0 47.7 41.3 42.1
Hispanic 37.0 39.4 39.3 35.4 36.3 35.9 37.1 35.0 37.4 34.6 33.5 34.7
Grade
9 22.4 24.8 23.6 24.2 26.6 22.7 21.2 21.9 20.1 21.4 21.3 19.6
10 33.2 30.1 33.7 29.2 33.0 29.7 30.6 29.2 30.6 29.1 30.3 29.4
11 43.3 40.0 42.4 37.8 37.5 38.1 41.1 39.4 41.8 40.3 38.7 40.2
12 50.6 53.0 49.7 46.0 50.6 47.9 48.9 49.4 52.6 49.1 47.5 49.3
Male 36.8 37.5 35.5 33.4 36.2 33.4 33.8 33.3 34.3 32.6 33.3 32.7
Race/Ethnicity3
Non-Hispanic White 32.2 32.9 31.6 29.6 31.3 30.0 28.5 30.6 30.6 28.9 30.0 29.7
Non-Hispanic Black 64.1 65.1 58.3 60.5 55.8 52.3 54.0 47.4 48.7 50.3 46.0 47.0
Hispanic 41.8 40.7 39.2 37.3 38.5 37.3 38.5 35.0 39.6 35.0 35.3 34.7
Grade
9 24.3 26.8 24.2 25.9 29.1 25.9 24.0 24.5 22.2 21.2 23.6 19.3
10 31.2 29.6 32.1 27.6 33.9 28.6 30.0 27.2 29.4 28.8 29.1 27.0
11 41.9 39.1 36.8 34.8 35.4 37.8 39.2 37.9 42.0 39.1 38.5 39.6
12 49.2 52.7 47.9 43.1 48.1 44.6 46.5 47.0 48.3 45.1 44.4 47.8
1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013
Female 38.2 37.5 40.4 36.5 36.3 33.4 34.6 34.6 35.6 35.6 34.2 35.2
Race/Ethnicity3
Non-Hispanic White 35.9 35.2 38.5 35.1 34.7 32.3 33.1 33.5 35.1 35.4 35.0 35.9
Non-Hispanic Black 55.3 53.2 50.6 47.3 50.3 39.5 44.2 43.8 43.5 45.0 36.9 37.6
Hispanic 32.8 37.9 39.4 33.2 34.0 34.5 35.8 33.7 35.3 34.1 31.6 34.7
Grade
9 20.4 22.5 22.3 22.4 24.0 19.9 18.3 19.5 18.0 21.6 19.0 19.8
10 35.3 30.7 35.4 31.2 32.0 30.7 31.2 31.1 31.8 29.3 31.4 31.8
11 44.7 40.9 48.1 41.5 39.5 38.1 42.9 40.8 41.5 41.5 38.9 40.7
12 52.1 53.2 51.9 49.5 53.0 51.0 51.0 51.7 56.7 53.1 50.7 50.7
1 Estimates do not include youth who dropped out of school and therefore may not reflect total national values. Additionally, no data was collected from students in California, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington in 2011. There is no data from Colorado, Indiana, and Iowa for 2013. Other states were not included in previous surveys.

3Race/ethnicity estimates from 1999 and later are not directly comparable to earlier years due to federal changes in race definitions. In surveys conducted in 1999 and later, respondents were allowed to select more than one race when selecting their racial category. Estimates presented only include respondents who selected one category when choosing their race.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014). 1991-2013 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Accessed on 7/22/2014. Available at http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/.

 

Endnotes


[1]DiCelmente, R.J., et al. (2002). Association of adolescents' history of sexually transmitted disease (STD) and their current high-risk behavior and STD status: A case for intensifying clinic-based prevention efforts. Sexually Transmitted Diseases,29(9): 503-509.

[2]Kirby, D. (2007). Emerging answers 2007: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

[3]Anderson, J. & Mueller, T (2008). Trends in sexual risk behavior and unprotected sex among high school students, 1991-2005: The role of substance abuse. Journal of School Health, 78(11): 575-580.

[4]Hallfors, D.D., Waller, M.W., Ford, C.A., Halpern, C.T., Brodish, P.H., Iritani, B. (2004). Adolescent depression and suicide risk: association with sex and drug behavior. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(3):224-231.

[5]Sabia, J. & Rees, D. (2009). The effect of sexual abstinence on females' educational attainment. Demography,46(4): 695-715).

[6]Price, M. & Hyde, J. (2009). When two isn't better than one: Predictors of early sexual activity in adolescence using a cumulative risk model. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(8): 1059-1071.

[7]Commendador, K. (2010). Parental influences on adolescent decision making and contraceptive use. Pediatric Nursing, 36(3).

[8]Manlove, J., Logan, C., Moore, K. & Ikramullah, E. (2008). Pathways from family religiosity to adolescent sexual activity and contraceptive use. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 40, 105-117.

[9]Kirby, D. (2007). Emerging answers 2007: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

[10]Longmore, M.A., Eng, A.L., Giordano, P.C., Manning, W.D., and Buehler, C. (2010). Parenting and adolescents' sexual initiation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(4): 969-982.

[11]Hipwell, A. E., Keenan, K., Loeber, R., and Battista, D. (2010). Early predictors of sexually intimate behaviors in an urban sample of young girls. Developmental Psychology,46(2): 366-378.

[12]Hispanics may be any race. Totals for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics.

[13]Brindis, C. (2006). A public health success: Understanding policy changes related to teen sexual activity and pregnancy. Annual Review of Public Health, 27(1): 277-297.

 

Suggested Citation:

Child Trends Databank. (2014). Sexually Active Teens. Available at: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=sexually-active-teens

 

Last updated: July 2014