New Survey on Teen Sexual Activity Fails to Present Whole Story

by Michael J. New

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has received plenty of media coverage this past week. It presents historical data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey on the sexual activity of high-school students. The results indicate that there were declines in minors’ sexual activity during the 1990s. However, those declines have stalled in the current decade. The study is very detailed and presents data on various measures of teen sexual activity. These include the percentage of teens who have ever had sex, the percentage of teens who have had sex with four or more partners, and the percentage of teens who have had sex within the past three months. The pattern is consistent. Each of these measures indicated that there was a decline in minors’ sexual activity during the 1990s — and little change in the current decade. These findings were also fairly consistent across various racial groups

The survey also shows a small, but consistent increase in condom use by teens during the past ten years. Some commentators are crediting this increase in condom use for the ongoing decline in the teen abortion rate. However, this survey may not be providing the full story. Back in May, the CDC released data from the National Survey of Family Growth which showed a more consistent decline in teen female sexual activity during the past 20 years. The reason for this steady decline was that females aged 13 to 19 — not just high-school aged girls — were surveyed. In the current decade, older teens have become much less sexually active. The percentage of girls 18–19 who had never had sex increased by 24 percent since 2002, while the percentage of girls 15–17 who had never had sex increased by only 5 percent during the same timespan. Perhaps abstinence and sexual restraint are playing a greater role in the teen abortion decline than many in the mainstream media are willing to admit.

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