What factors affected the likelihood of protected sex in teens their first time out? According to the survey:
Age: 59% of girls who first had sex at 14 or younger used contraception, compared with 90% of girls who waited until ages 17 to 19; the corresponding rates in boys were 75% and 93%
Age of partner: 83% of girls who first had sex with a male partner of the same age or younger used contraception, compared with 64% of girls whose partners were at least four years older; in boys, the trend was similar, with 88% using contraception with younger partners and 75% doing so with older ones
Race: 71% of black teen girls had protected sex the first time, compared with 82% of white teens; in teen boys, however, there were no racial differences — a shift from past patterns
To get a better sense of teens’ first sexual experiences, the researchers asked them how much they actually wanted to have sex the first time they did it. In girls, it appeared it was worth it to wait. Among teen girls who lost their virginity at 14 or younger, 18% said they “really didn’t want it to happen at the time,” double the rate of teen girls who waited until age 18 or 19. About 30% of younger teen girls said they “really wanted it to happen at the time,” compared with 52% of girls who had sex at 18 or 19 for the first time. Overall, nearly half of all teen girls “had mixed feelings” about their first sexual encounter, reporting that “part of me wanted it to happen at the time and part of me didn’t.”
The same questions were asked of the boys, and, shockingly, most said they “really wanted it to happen.” Very few checked the didn’t-want-to-do-it box, regardless of age or race. And most teens, both boys and girls, said they had sex for the first time with someone they were “going steady” with, as opposed to a person they’d “just met” or were “just friends” with.
The point of all this data collection is, of course, to translate it into reductions in teen pregnancy, teen birth and sexually transmitted diseases. Although young people account for a quarter of all people who have ever had sex, they acquire half of all new STDs, the study authors write. Girls aged 15 to 19 still have higher rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea than any other age or gender group, and while rates of syphilis among teens are lower than in other age groups, they’ve been increasing every year since the early 2000s.
As for the national teen birth rate, it hit an all-time low in 2009, when there were 39.1 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. That rate had declined continuously from a high of 61.8 in 1991 — right up until 2005 when it made an alarming but temporary 5% upward swing, before dropping back down to the current low.
Problem is, other developed countries make mincemeat out of the U.S.’s historic low. The teen birth rate in Canada is 14; in Germany, it’s 10; and in Italy, just 7.
The U.S. teen pregnancy rate has also declined over the last two decades, down now to the lowest rate ever recorded. Still, about 410,000 American teens give birth each year, representing 10% of all births and costing U.S. taxpayers about $9 billion a year.