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.
Engaging in sexual intercourse puts male and female teens at risk for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  A younger age at first sexual intercourse is also associated with a greater likelihood of having nonconsensual or unwanted sex, having multiple sexual partners, and decreased contraceptive use. Additionally, youth who engage in early sexual intercourse are more likely to engage in later delinquent behaviors, are at greater risk of experiencing depression, and are less likely to reach post-secondary levels of education.
Many factors are associated with the age of sexual initiation. Teens who grow up in stable families with higher levels of parental education are less likely to have sex at a young age., Teens who have good relationships with their parents—e g., are close to their parents, communicate about sex, and whose parents set rules and monitor their child’s whereabouts—are less likely to have sex at an early age., Conversely, youth who are disengaged from school, involved in delinquent activities, or who have higher levels of externalizing behaviors are at increased risk for early sex., However, not all teens who have ever had sex are currently sexually active. For example, according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth, 29 percent of teens report that they have had sex in the past three months, but only 24 percent have had sex in the past month. About one-quarter of teens (ages 15-19, 23 percent) have had only one sex partner in the past twelve months; however, older teens (18- to 19-year-olds) are more likely to have had sex with more than one person (34 percent).
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. (Figure 1)
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).
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)
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.
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)
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.
Through its Healthy People 2020 initiative, the federal government has set national goals to decrease the proportion of adolescents under age 17 who are sexually experienced, with sub-goals for males and females, ages under 15 years and over 15 years. Additionally, there are goals to increase the proportion of sexually active adolescents who used a condom during intercourse.
More information is available here. (goals FP 9 and 10)
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.
A variety of programs and policies—including comprehensive family life education, access to contraceptive care, early childhood programs, and youth development programs—have been linked to both delays in age at first sex, as well as engagement in healthier sexual behaviors among those who have had sex. Some examples include: Positive Prevention  and Teen Star , which which have been found to delay the onset of sexual activity and to reduce the frequency of sexual activity among sexually active high school students and adolescents. Additionally, Reach for Health – Service Learning Program  has been shown to be effective at reducing the proportion of minority, urban middle-schoolers who have initiated sex by 10th grade.
Also, see the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health’s list of interventions meeting its criteria for effectiveness in pregnancy prevention.
Sexually experienced is defined as ever having had vaginal sexual intercourse in one’s lifetime.
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
|1 Estimates do not include youth who dropped out of school and therefore may not reflect total national values. 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.
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.
Source: 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.
Kaiser Family Foundation. (2005). U.S. teen sexual activity. Washington, DC: Author.
Abma, J. C, Martinez, G. M., & Copen, C. E. (2010). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics, 23(30).
Manlove, J., Ikramullah, E., Mincieli, L., Holcombe, E., & Danish, S. (2009). Trends in sexual experience, contraceptive use, and teenage childbearing: 1992– 2002. Journal of Adolescent Health, 5, 413-423.
Armour, S., & Haynie, D. (2007). Adolescent sexual debut and later delinquency. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36, 141-152.
Hallfors, D., Waller, M. W., Bauer, D, Ford, C. A., & Halpern, C. T. (2005). Which comes first in adolescence – Sex and drugs, or depression? American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 29(3), 163-170.
Spriggs, A, & Halpern C. (2008) Timings of sexual debut and initiation of postsecondary education by early adulthood. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 40 (3), 152-161.
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.
Manlove, J., Ikramullah, E., Mincieli, L., Holcombe, E., & Danish, S. (2009). Op. Cit.
Commendator, K. (2010). Parental influences on adolescent decision making and contraceptive use. Pediatric Nursing, 36(3).
Longmore, M. A., Eng, A. L., Giordano, P. C., & Manning, W. D. (2009). 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.
Martinez, G. M., Copen, C. E., & Abma, J. C. (2011) and Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing, 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics, 23 (31).
Hispanics may be any race. Totals for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics.
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
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.
LaChausse, R.G. (2006). Evaluation of the Positive Prevention HIV/STD curriculum. American Journal of Health Education, 37(4), 203-209.
Cabezon, C., Vigil, P., Rojas, I., Leiva, M. E., Riquelme, R., Aranda, W., & Garcia, C. (2005). Adolescent pregnancy prevention: An abstinence-centered randomized controlled intervention in a Chilean public high school. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 64-69.
O’Donnell, L., Stueve, A., O’Donnell, C., Duran, R., San Doval, A., Wilson, R.F., Haber, D., Perry, E., & Pleck, J.H. (2002). Long-term reductions in sexual initiation and sexual activity among urban middle schoolers in Reach for Health Service Learning Program. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 93-100.
Child Trends Databank. (2017). Sexually Experienced Teens. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=sexually-experienced-teens