More than One-Third of Teens Never or Inconsistently Used Contraceptives During Their First Sexual Relationship

Washington, DC – Among teens who have sex, what influences decision-making about using contraceptives during their first sexual relationship? Being in a longer relationship? Having an older partner? Virginity pledges? Recent analyses by Child Trends show that all of these factors are related to teens’ use of contraceptives and ultimately to their protection from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Among sexually experienced teens, 63 percent reported always using contraceptives in their first sexual relationship, while 16 percent reported inconsistent use and 21 percent reported never using contraceptives during their first relationship.

These findings were released in Patterns of Contraceptive Use Within Teenagers’ First Sexual Relationships, an article in the November/December issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The data used came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a nationally representati

ve survey of U.S. students who were in grades 7 to 12 in 1995. Data were collected in two waves, in 1995 and 1996.

“Despite the declines in teen childbearing during the last decade, teenagers in the United States still have a very high teen birth rate compared to other modern, industrialized countries. The U.S. teen birth rate is much higher than the rate in Canada or England,” said Jennifer Manlove, senior research associate at Child Trends. “Part of the reason for this high birth rate is inconsistent use or nonuse of contraceptives.”

Findings from the study include:

Length of pre-sexual relationships

  • Many teens have sex for the first time very early in their relationships, but waiting longer between the start of a relationship and first sex is linked to better contraceptive use. For each month that a teenager delayed first sex after the start of a romantic relationship, the likelihood of consistent contraceptive use increased by 5 percent.

“The majority of sexually experienced teens reported having sex for the first time within three months of the start of their relationship,” said Suzanne Ryan, research associate at Child Trends. “This is a very small window of opportunity for parents and service providers to intervene and encourage teens to delay sex or emphasize using contraceptives consistently.”

Differences by race/ethnicity and partner age 

  • White and black teens reported higher levels of contraceptive use (66 percent each) than Hispanic teens (54 percent) or those of other races (50 percent).
  • Teens who dated older partners had a lower likelihood of consistent contraceptive use. For each year a partner was older than the respondent, the likelihood of always using contraception decreased by 11 percent. (In this study, on average, first sexual partners were one year older than the respondent.)

Virginity pledges

  • Teens who had taken a virginity pledge were 57% less likely to always use contraception than those who had not taken a pledge.

“This finding is consistent with other research that shows that, while teens who take virginity pledges wait longer to have sex for the first time, those who break the pledge have reduced odds of using contraception at first sex,” said Ryan. “So, it is important to accompany abstinence messages with a message that if and when teens do have sex, they need to use contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and STDs.”

Contraceptive planning and dual method use

  • Teens who talked to their partners about contraception before sex had more than twice the likelihood of ever using contraception than those who did not discuss it.
  • Teens who used a combination of at least two contraceptive methods had a much higher likelihood of being consistent contraceptive users than those who used only one method or who varied between single and multiple methods.

“These findings should remind parents that young people need to receive a clear message that it is important to delay first intercourse and, if they become sexually active, to talk with their partners about protection and maintain consistent use,” said Manlove. “Parents need to be especially concerned if their teens are involved with older partners. Also, even if teens take a virginity pledge, parents should not assume their teen is permanently not at risk.”

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.