New Findings on Teens and Sex

by Michael J. New

This week’s release of The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior has received plenty of media attention. This is unsurprising since sex is a topic that is of interest to many Americans. In particular, most of the media attention has centered around findings that involve frequency of contraceptive use, same-sex sexual relations, and the combinations of sexual activities that are engaged in by adults.

Less attention has been paid to the findings involving adolescent sexual activity. However, these findings are perhaps the most interesting, because they indicate that adolescents are less sexually active than many people realize. Not surprisingly, as adolescents get older, they are more likely to engage in a range of sexual activities.

However, only about 25 percent of both 17-year-old boys and 17-year-old girls reported engaging in sexual intercourse during the past 90 days. Furthermore, by the time they turn 17 only 40 percent of boys and about 31 percent of girls have ever engaged in sexual intercourse.

These are interesting findings. The Guttmacher Institute frequently publishes studies which purportedly find that a vast majority of Americans are sexually active and that very few adults abstain from sexual activity before marriage. However, by reporting on both the types and the frequency of adolescent sexual activity, these findings provide some much needed context. While it is true that a significant number of teens engage in sexual activity, the findings indicate that sex is by no means a pervasive aspect of most adolescents’ lives.

– Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor at The University of Alabama and a Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.