Few topics are so heavily shrouded in mystery and myth as those involving sex and sexuality. When it comes to adolescents’ sexual behavior, these mysteries can contribute to a variety of negative outcomes, including unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), among others. Sex education professionals and those creating resources must give extensive attention to dispelling myths on issues ranging from how and when pregnancy occurs and infections are transmitted, to what constitutes “normal” body development, patterns of attraction, or types and frequencies of behavior. These misconceptions and gaps in knowledge are often based on stereotypes and faulty assumptions. Here we attempt to shatter five prevalent and damaging myths about teen sexual behavior held by adults and teens alike.
Untrue! Nationwide, the percentage of high school students who have ever had sexual intercourse has actually decreased from 54 to 47 percent between 1991 and 2013. And as of the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2013 only 34 percent of students reported being currently sexually active (having had sexual intercourse within the past three months), down from 38 percent in 1991. In other words, fewer teens are sexually active now than over the past two decades.
Not really. As it turns out, the median age at first sex has actually increased over the past several decades. As of 2010, the median age of first sex was 17.8 years old for females and 18.1 for males. Essentially, this means kids today wait longer to start having sex than they have in the past. Further, the median age at first sex has not fallen below 17 at any point over the past 50 years. Nationwide, the percentage of high school students who reported having had sex before the age of 13 is just below six percent, down from 10 percent in 1991. The percentage of high school students who report having ever had sex is highest among 12th grade students (64 percent) and decreases by grade level, down to 30 percent among 9th graders.
While media accounts have declared “the end of dating and romance among teens in favor of casual hook-ups,” the truth is that by age 18, over 80 percent of adolescents have had some dating experience and a majority of experiences were defined by the teens themselves as “special romantic relationships.” It is true that students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades in 2012 were dating less than teens were 30 years ago, but the majority of teenagers still have their first sexual intercourse within the context of a romantic relationship. Only 16 percent of female teens and 28 percent of male teens had sex for the first time with someone they had just met or with whom they were “just friends.” Still, it is worth noting that the phrase “hooking up” means different things to different people, and while 97 percent of young adults assume it involves a sexual experience of some sort, there is no consensus about the specific behaviors (e.g., kissing, oral sex, intercourse) that constitute these experiences.
Teens have actually gotten much better at using condoms and contraceptives over the past two decades. Eighty-six percent of currently sexually-active teenagers indicated that either they or their partner used a condom or other contraceptive the last time they had sex. Nearly 60 percent of students nationwide reported that either they or their partner had used a condom during last sexual intercourse. About one quarter of them reported that either they or their partner use other methods of contraception—including birth control pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs, such as Mirena, ParaGard), shots (such as Depo-Provera), implants (such as Nexplanon, Implanon), patches (such as Ortho Evra), or rings (such as NuvaRing)—and 9 percent reported using both condoms and other contraceptive methods. While there is certainly room for improvement, the data indicate that significantly more teens are taking measures to protect themselves from disease and unplanned pregnancy than in decades past.
This myth in particular is based on a well-established stereotype that males are (or should be) active, dominant, and emotionally detached, whereas females are (or should be) passive, submissive, and more romantically inclined. It is a perception that is deeply embedded within the public psyche and that is shaped and reinforced by a variety of social institutions, including religion, law, medicine, and media. It is flawed in many ways, however. Boys and girls are each capable of romantic and sexual attraction; recent research on gender differences in heterosexual adolescent relationships revealed no significant differences between boys and girls in feelings of heightened emotionality in connection with a current or recent relationship. Expectations or assumptions based on traditional gender norms are harmful to youth of all gender identities and sexual orientations. They can be dismissive of those female-born youth who identify as masculine, and male-born youth who identify as feminine. They can also downplay the romantic aspects of relationships among teen boys, and the sexual aspects of relationships among teen girls. These youth in particular are at risk for a variety of negative social and health outcomes. Supportive families, friends, and schools can all mitigate these outcomes and reinforce the importance of avoiding stereotyping and promoting acceptance and appreciation of all youth.
Sexuality is a natural and normal component of adolescent development, and promoting healthy development means knowing fact versus myth.