Key facts about sexual activity among teens

  • 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.
  • Approximately two in five high school students report that they have ever had sexual intercourse. This proportion declined between 1991 and 2001, from 54 to 46 percent; since that time, it has fluctuated, declining once again between 2014 and 2015 to reach a historic low of 41 percent. Among black students, the recent decline in the proportion reporting that they are sexually experienced is particularly large.

Trends in sexual activity among teens

Sexually active teens

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.

Sexually experienced teens

The proportion of high school students who reported they had ever had vaginal sexual intercourse declined between 1991 and 2001, from 54 to 46 percent. Between 2001 and 2011 this figure fluctuated only slightly, and then further declined to 41 percent in 2015.

Differences by gender

Sexually active teens

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)

Sexually experienced teens

In 2015, slightly more male students reported having sexual intercourse than female students (43 and 39 percent, respectively). Additionally, both black and Hispanic males were significantly more likely to report ever having sexual intercourse than their female peers (59 versus 37 percent, and 45 versus 40 percent, respectively). (Appendix 1)

 

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin*

Sexually active teens

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. (Figure 1)

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).

Sexually experienced teens

Black high school students overall are the most likely to have reported ever having had sexual intercourse (49 percent in 2015). In comparison, 43 percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of whites reported having ever had sexual intercourse; the difference between these two groups is not statistically significant. The disparity between black students and those in the other two groups has generally declined over time. (Figure 1) Among female students in 2015, no differences in sexual experience between black, white, and Hispanic students were statistically significant. Among male students, blacks were more likely to be sexually experienced (59 percent) compared to both Hispanics (45 percent) and whites (40 percent). (Appendix 1)

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

Differences by Grade and Age

Sexually active teens

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.

Sexually experienced teens

The percentage of students who are sexually experienced increases with every grade. In 2015, 24 percent of ninth-graders reported they had sexual intercourse, compared with 36 percent of tenth-graders, 50 percent of eleventh-graders, and 58 percent of twelfth-graders. This difference between grades has been increasing since 2001. Additionally, the percentage of students who are sexually experienced decreased for each grade from 2013 to 2015. (Figure 2)

Among teens aged 15 and 16, males are more likely than females to be sexually experienced, but this difference nearly disappears by age 17. In 2011-2013, 18 percent of 15-year-old males and 13 percent of females were sexually experienced. By age 17, the percentage was 44 percent for males and 43 percent for females, and by age 19, the percentage was 69 and 68 percent, respectively.[1]

Other estimates

Sexually active teens – State and local estimates

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).

Sexually experienced teens – State and local estimates

2015 estimates of sexual experience among high school students (Grades 9-12) are available for select states and cities from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). (Table 69)

Sexually active teens – International estimates

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

Sexually experienced teens – International estimates

Estimates of sexual experience among 15-year-olds in 36 European countries can be found in a summary of the results of the 2013/2014 Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, Health and Policy for Children and Adolescents, no. 7.

Data Sources

Sexually active teens

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

Sexually experienced teens

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016). 1991-2015 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Accessed on 3/9/2017. Retrieved from http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/.

In 2015, no data were collected from students in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. Other states were not included in previous surveys.

Youth Risk Behavior Survey: https://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/Default.aspx

Background

Definition – Sexually active teens

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.

Definition – Sexually experienced teens

Sexually experienced is defined as ever having had vaginal sexual intercourse in one’s lifetime.

Endnote

[1] Martinez, G. M., & Abma, J. C. (2015). Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing of teenagers aged 15-19 in the United States, Data Brief No. 209. National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db209.pdf

Suggested citation

Child Trends Databank. (2017). Sexual Activity Among Teens. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/sexual-activity-among-teens