The latest government survey of teen sex and contraceptive use finds that things have largely remained unchanged in last eight years: teens are still having less sex and using birth control more often than you’d think.
The survey did reveal a couple of notable exceptions in safe sex behavior, though. Teen boys are now using condoms more frequently at first sex, often combined with a second form of birth control, and teen girls are increasingly using newer hormonal contraceptives like patches and rings.
The new report [PDF], released Wednesday, is based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth, a project that government researchers have been updating periodically since 1973. The first such survey didn’t include never-married women, since it was “then considered too sensitive” to interview single ladies about sex, the authors write, but in 1982, as births to unwed mothers began increasing, the survey was expanded to include all teens and women aged 15 to 44, regardless of marital status. In 2002, researchers began including teen boys and men as well.
The latest teen sex data, covering the 2006-10 period, included interviews with 4,662 teens — 2,284 girls and 2,378 boys. In broad strokes, the data suggest that U.S. teens’ sexual habits haven’t evolved much since the last survey in 2002. Currently, 43% of teen girls and 42% of teen boys report ever having had sex, rates that have more or less plateaued since 2002, following a long period of decline. Between 1988 and 2002, by comparison, the percentage of teen girls who had had sex fell from 51% to 46%, while the same rate in teen boys dropped from 60% to 46%.
But when looking at the data more closely, by race, researchers found that the proportion of black teen girls reporting having had sex had dropped — from 57% in 2002 to 46% in 2006-10 — to match rates of sex in white and Hispanic girls for the first time.
In boys, the trend lines continued to diverge by race: compared with 37% of white teen boys who reported having had sex, 46% of Hispanic teens and 58% of black teen boys did.
For both girls and boys, the odds of their ever having had sex were significantly smaller if:
- they lived with both parents when they were aged 14
- their mothers had their first birth at age 20 or over
- the teenager’s mother was a college graduate
- the teenager lived with both of her/his parents
In 2006-10, most teens (78% of girls, 85% of boys) reported using any form of contraception during their first sexual encounter — and that overall rate hasn’t changed much since 2002. But more teen boys — 80% — are now reporting using condoms during first sex, a significant increase from 71% in 2002. More teen boys also said they used a condom in addition to another birth control method, such as the pill.
Girls, meanwhile, also reported using condoms (68%) as their contraception of choice during first sex, followed by the pill (16%). A small, but growing percentage of girls reported using other, newer kinds of hormonal birth control — like injectables, the morning-after pill, the contraceptive patch and the ring.
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.