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 33 percent in 2015.
Sexually active teenagers—defined as those who have had sexual intercourse in the past three months—are at immediate risk for 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—are at even higher risk. , 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 and depression, as well as have lower levels of educational attainment.
Research has identified several factors associated with delaying the onset of sexual activity among teens. Teens who grow up in stable families with more economic resources, who communicate with their parents about sex, who express more religiosity, and who are more connected to their schools  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 for early sexual activity.,
The share of high school students who are sexually active has fluctuated since 1991, ranging from 30 to 38 percent. In 2015, 30.1 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 33 percent in 2015. (Figure 1)
Roughly a third of both male and female high school students reported being sexually active in 2015 (30 percent for both males and females). (Appendix 1) In 2015, black male students were more likely than black female students to report being sexually active (40 and 26 percent, respectively). There were no major differences in the prevalence of sexual activity between white or Hispanic males and their female peers. (Figure 2)
As of 2015, black high school students were slightly more likely than white students to report being sexually active (33 compared with 30 percent, respectively). There was no difference in the reported sexual activity rates between white and Hispanic students. The gap between black students 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.
The racial/ethnic gap is wider among males. Black males were the most likely to report being sexually active (40 percent), followed by Hispanic males (31 percent). White male students were the least likely to report being sexually active (29 percent). Among female students this trend was reversed: white females were more likely to report being sexually active (31 percent) than Hispanic females (30 percent) or black females (26 percent). (Figure 2)
The likelihood of being sexually active increases with grade, by 8 to 12 percentage points each year. In 2015, 16 percent of ninth-grade students reported they were sexually active, compared with 46 percent of twelfth-graders. The difference was slightly greater among female students. (Figure 3)
2015 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 can be found at UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center.
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 (to 90.8 for males and 97.6 percent for females), or who have talked with a parent or guardian about how to say no to sex (to 45.3 and 67.5 percent, respectively).
More information is available here. (goals FP 12 and FP 13)
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.
See Ball, V., and Moore, K. A. (2008). What works for adolescent reproductive health: Lessons from experimental evaluations of programs and interventions.
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:
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.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016). 1991-2015 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Accessed on 3/3/2017. Retrieved from http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/
Youth Risk Behavior Survey
|1 Estimates do not include youth who dropped out of school and therefore may not reflect the total population in this age group. Students from Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota were not included in the survey in any year. Additionally, students from Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin were not included in the 2015 survey. Other states were not included in previous surveys.
2 Race/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). (2016). 1991-2015 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Accessed on 3/3/2017. Retrieved from http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/.
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.
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
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.
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.
Sabia, J., & Rees, D. (2009). The effect of sexual abstinence on females’ educational attainment. Demography, 46(4): 695-715).
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.
Commendador, K. (2010). Parental influences on adolescent decision making and contraceptive use. Pediatric Nursing, 36(3).
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.
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.
Longmore, M. A., Eng, A.L., Giordano, P.C., Manning, W.D., & Buehler, C. (2010). Parenting and adolescents’ sexual initiation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(4): 969-982.
Hipwell, A. E., Keenan, K., Loeber, R., & Battista, D. (2010). Early predictors of sexually intimate behaviors in an urban sample of young girls. Developmental Psychology, 46(2): 366-378.
Hispanics may be any race. Totals for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics.
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.
Child Trends Databank. (2017). Sexually Active Teens. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=sexually-active-teens
Last updated: March 2017