Encouraging Trends in Teen Sexual Activity: Some Concerns Remain

WASHINGTONDCA new research brief just released by Child Trends reports some encouraging findings on teen sexuality. Fewer teens are having sexual intercourse; sexually experienced teens are less likely to report that they had sex before the age of 15; and sexually experienced teens don’t always remain sexually active.


Child Trends’ newest research brief, Trends and Recent Estimates: Sexual Activity Among U.S. Teens, drawn from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, which surveyed males and females between the ages of 15 and 44, shares these positive trends in teen sexual activity while raising some continued concerns.


“We are encouraged by the decline in sexual experience among many subpopulations of teens,” stated Jennifer Manlove, Ph. D., co-author of the report. “However, we also identified subgroups of teenagers who engage in oral sex and teenagers who have multiple sexual partners, placing them at a greater risk of unintended pregnancy and childbearing or of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.”


Research findings:


Findings About Sexual Experience and Activity

  • The percentage of teens who have ever had sexual intercourse has declined among all age groups. In 2002, 46 percent of never-married male and female teens between the ages of 15 and 19 had ever had sexual intercourse compared with 60% of never-married males and 51% of never-married females in 1988.  Thus, the gender gap in sexual experience has disappeared.
  • In 2002, 13 percent of never-married females between the ages of 15 and 19 reported having had sex before age 15, down from 19 percent in 1995.
  • White, black, and Hispanic teenagers all experienced significant declines in sexual experience for at least one gender.
  • In 2002, almost one-half of never-married teens between the ages of 15 and 19 had had sexual intercourse at least once (46 percent), and approximately one-quarter had had sexual intercourse in the previous four weeks.
  • Although the majority of sexually experienced teenagers reported one or no recent sexual partners (61% of males and 70% of females), close to one in 10 male and female teenagers has had four or more sexual partners in the previous year, which places them at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections.

Findings About Oral Sex

  • One in six 15 to 17 year olds has had oral sex but not sexual intercourse.  White teenagers were more likely to have had no experience with sexual intercourse but to have engaged in oral sex (19%) than were Hispanic (14%) and black (8%) teenagers.

Findings About First Sexual Partners

  • Among sexually experienced teens, 79 percent of females between 15 and 19 in 2002 reported that they were going steady with, cohabitating with, engaged or married to their first sexual partner at the time of their first experience with sexual intercourse.  In contrast, one-third of males reported that they had just met or were just friends with their first sexual partner.
  • Females were more likely than males to have first sexual partners who were three or more years older than them (37% and 8% respectively).
  • Females were more likely than males to report that they really didn’t want their first sexual experience to happen at the time that it did (13% and 6%, respectively).  More than one in four females aged 14 and younger at first sex reported they really didn’t want that sexual experience to occur.

There are a number of policies that can help continue the decline in teen pregnancy and childbearing and reverse the high rates of sexually transmitted infections. It is important to increase the proportion of adolescents who remain abstinent, but it is also important to focus on adolescents whodo become sexually experienced, in order to help prevent unwanted pregnancy and reduce the likelihood of having multiple partners. It is also important to encourage teens to reduce the frequency of sexual activity and the number of sexual partners and to expand interventions to address high-risk populations.

About Child Trends

Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center serving those dedicated to creating better lives for children and youth. For more information about Child Trends, visit www.childtrends.org.