As far as sexual behavior goes, we may be worrying about the wrong people. The kids, it turns out, may be all right. It’s the boomers who are being all, like, irresponsible and stuff. At least that’s the finding of the largest nationally representative survey of the sexual behavior of Americans ever undertaken, the results of which were published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine (JSM) on Oct. 4. (More on Time.com: Photos: Animals Wildly in Love)
Most adolescents, defined as those aged between 14 and 17, are not having sex — only about a fifth of them have ever had intercourse. And the last time they did, the majority of them used condoms. Boomers, on the other hand, thanks to better health and Bob Dole, are having sex well into old age. (One septuagenarian reported getting busy four or more times a week.) But unless they’re Hispanic or African American, these older folks are not using condoms nearly as much as teenagers are.
The study, conducted by Indiana University, which has a long and respected history of sex research (it houses the Kinsey Institute), took an intensive look at the sexual habits of 5,865 people aged 14 to 94 across a spectrum of races and education levels. Some of its findings are not that surprising — men think their female partners have orgasms more often they actually do, older people have friends-with-benefits too — but it offers a picture of teens’ sexual behavior that diverges from the stereotype. Among the 17-year-olds surveyed, 40% of males and 31% of females said they have had sexual intercourse. This suggests more teens may be waiting longer to become sexually active; according to a 2002 survey conducted by the National Survey of Family Growth, 46% of males and 49% of females had had sex by age 17. (More on Time.com: Amortality: 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now)
The new Indiana University study also found that among sexually active adolescents, 80% of males and 69% of females reported using a condom during their last sexual encounter, an increase compared to prior surveys. “Condom use and protection is normative among this group,” says sex educator Logan Levkoff, who serves on an advisory council at Trojan, which funded the study. “But until we’re at 100%, we still have our work to do.”
How did this happen, even in an age of abstinence-only education? Dennis Fortenberry, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, who wrote the paper on condom use in the JSM, speculates that it’s because the kids grew up in an era when HIV, STDs and sex have been part of an intense public debate. “Condoms have been very much part of that dialogue, even when there has been controversy about how to teach about condoms in schools,” he says. “I think these data show that adolescents have in fact been attending to that dialogue, and have learned from many different sources to incorporate condoms into their sexual behaviors. ” (More on Time.com: Photos: The Politics of Sex)
Perhaps sex educators should now devote their attention to Boomers. The study showed that among men over 50, 91% did not use a condom when they had sex with a date or casual acquaintance, and 70% didn’t even do so when they had sex with someone they just met. Their female peers are more careful in general, but a majority of them have sex without a condom. A few older people in the study didn’t use a condom even when they knew they or their partner had a sexually transmitted infection. “Sadly, I find this not hard to believe,” says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington (and another member of the Trojan advisory council), adding that figures from the AARP show a similar disdain. Because Boomers are often reentering the dating market after several years of marriage, Schwartz believes some of them missed key public health messages. “They were spoiled for years and now they have this prejudice that they’re safe,” she says.
Looks like they need a little sex talk. Preferably from their kids.
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