News Release

May 27, 2003

Washington, DC – Last Tuesday’s report showed that nearly 20 percent of young teens say they have had sex before they are 15 years old. But who are these teens? What do we know about their sexual behaviors? And what do they know about protecting themselves from pregnancy and disease?

The chapter by Child Trends in last week’s report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Dating and Sexual Experience Among Middle School Youth: Analyses of the NLSY97 by Elizabeth Terry-Humen, M.P.P. and Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D., looks inside these numbers to find out who is having sex at young ages and how much they actually know about sex, protection and pregnancy.

Who is having sex before their 15th birthdays

  • Non-Hispanic black teens report higher levels of early sexual experience. 34 percent of non-Hispanic blacks reported having sex before age 15, compared with 21 percent of Hispanics and 16 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Even after controlling for maternal education, African Americans are still more likely to have sex before age 15.
  • Young males are more likely to be having sex early. 22 percent of males report having sex before age 15 compared to 17 percent of females. Gender differences in early sexual activity are due to large gender differences among African Americans and Hispanics. White males and females were equally likely to have an early sexual experience. In fact, for white teens whose mothers were more educated, females were slightly more likely to engage in early sex.
  • Teens whose parents are better educated wait longer to have sex. Among teens whose mothers had a high school education or less, 24 percent had had sex before age 15, compared to 15 percent of teens whose mothers had more than a high school education.
  • Boys whose mothers had lower levels of education were nearly twice as likely to have sex at an early age. 28 percent of males whose mothers had a high school education or less had sex before age 15, compared to 15 percent of males whose mothers had more education.

“Research shows that early sexual activity, like other risky behaviors, is more common among socially and economically disadvantaged groups,” said Dr. Jennifer Manlove, senior research associate at Child Trends. “Teens who grow up in poverty, who have parents with low levels of education, and who grow up with only one parent are at higher risk of early sexual activity and early pregnancy.”

Behaviors of sexually experienced young teens

  • Many young teens who are sexually experienced have had more than one sexual partner. More than half of sexually experienced 14-year-olds reported having two or more lifetime sexual partners. On the other hand, up to 16 percent of these teens reported having no partners in the last year.
  • White teens report higher numbers of sexual experiences and partners than black and Hispanic teens. Among 14-year-olds who had had sex, 43 percent of non-Hispanic white teens reported having two or more recent sexual partners and 56 percent reported having sex three or more times in the last year.
  • Most young teens reported using birth control the first time they had sex. Nearly three-quarters of sexually experienced 14-year-olds said they used contraceptives at first sex (but 25 percent did not). More than three-quarters reported that condoms were the birth control method used most frequently during the last year.

“Sexual activity among young teens is often episodic. They may have sex once and then wait months or even years to have sex again,” said Elizabeth Terry-Humen, senior research analyst at Child Trends. “In addition to reaching out to teens who have not yet had sex, parents and program providers should target teens who are already sexually experienced with messages of prevention and abstinence.”

Although 19 percent of teens reported having sex before age 15, 13-year-olds have limited knowledge of pregnancy and fertility cycles.

Young teens knowledge (and lack thereof) about contraception and pregnancy

  • Many young teens knew how to prevent STDs, but only a quarter knew the most effective pregnancy prevention method. The majority (64 percent) of 13-year-olds could identify condoms as the most effective sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention method. Only 26 percent knew that birth control pills were the most effective contraceptive method to prevent pregnancy.
  • Very few young teens knew about how the female reproductive system works. Only 8 percent of 13-year-olds (7 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls) knew the timing of the female fertility cycle and when pregnancy is most likely to occur.

Information about the full report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 14 and Younger, can be found at Contact Amber Moore (202-572-6134) for more information on the chapter authored by Child Trends.

Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers.