Beyond twerking: What do we really know about dating and sexual behavior among today’s teens?

Ever since Miley Cyrus elevated twerking in the popular lexicon during her provocative MTV Music Video Awards performance, many have weighed in on what this says about today’s teens. Is Miley’s suggestive dancing contributing to a teen culture that degrades women? Is she being unfairly blamed for enabling the sexual assault of young girls? What may get lost amidst all the talk about twerking is what is actually known about dating and sexual behavior among U.S. teens.

Dating during adolescence is relatively common: in 2011, 47 percent of 8th graders, 62 percent of 10th graders, and 66 percent of 12th graders reported that they ever date. Dating can be a positive experience for adolescents, promoting self esteem and contributing to the development of communication and conflict management skills. Yet not all teen dating experiences support healthy outcomes. In fact, poor quality romantic relationships—including multiple short-term relationships or those with high levels of aggression—are linked to poor school performance and emotional health.[i]

Of course, dating can lead to sex. Most sexually active teens first have sex in a steady dating relationship, a prospect that can be very anxiety provoking for parents, practitioners working with youth, and the general public. This concern is certainly understandable, especially for younger teens. The younger adolescents are when they have sex, the less likely they are to use contraception, putting them at greater risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Younger teens who have sex are also more likely to have a much older partner, which can lead to power differentials in relationships and reduced contraceptive use.

Teens’ increased use of technology further raises valid concerns about dating and sexual behaviors. More than one-third of adolescents have sent or posted a sexually suggestive message via text, instant message (IM), or e-mail. Last summer’s brutal assault of a Steubenville, Ohio, teen girl, which was documented in excruciating detail through cell phones and social media, raised further questions about the link between new technology and teen sexual behavior.

But it is important to keep the whole picture in front of the public. That picture includes some  positive trends in teens’ sexual behaviors. A smaller percentage of high school students are sexually active today than was the case  just over twenty years ago; 47 percent in 2011 compared to 54 percent in 1991. This decline was particularly pronounced among black teens. Over the same time frame, teens’ use of contraception also increased. As a result, teen pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. are at historic lows.

This is not to say that we still don’t have critical work to do when it comes to supporting healthy sexual behaviors for all teens. U.S. teen pregnancy rates remain higher than in other industrialized countries, and within the U.S., poor and minority teens have disproportionately high rates of pregnancy and STDs. Additionally, while we have learned a lot about what kinds of programs work (or not) to support adolescent reproductive health, there is still room for growth in this area. Researchers and providers are increasingly focusing on the role of teen boys and young adult men in pregnancy prevention, and the importance of building emotional and interpersonal skills in boys and girls in order to reduce teen pregnancy.[ii]

So, whether you watched Miley’s twerking and weighed in during the ensuing conversation, or whether you’ve stayed far from the fray, try and locate this incident within the bigger picture of what the research tells us about teen dating and sex in the U.S. today. Let’s make sure we all have a clear idea of what successes we’ve had, what challenges we currently face, and what work remains to be done.

[i] Collins, W.A., Welsh, D.P., & Furman, W.C. (2009). Adolescent romantic relationships.  Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 631-652.

[ii] Barber, B. & Eccles, J. (2003). The joy of romance: Healthy adolescent relationships as an educational agenda.  In p. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical implications (pp.355-370).  Mahwah, NG: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.