Over the past month, the Guttmacher Institute released two studies on recent trends in teen sexual activity, and they appear to contradict one another. One study, which appeared in The Journal of Adolescent Health, analyzed data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and found significant increases in teenage contraception use with no corresponding decrease in teen sexual activity. The other study, published in a Guttmacher policy report, reported contradictory findings, using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) to find recent decreases in teen sexual activity with no corresponding increase in teenage contraceptive use.
What accounts for these contradictory findings? There are a couple of possibilities. Sometimes contradictions such as these are caused by slight differences in the wording of survey questions. It’s also possible that one of the surveys might have used a skewed sample of teenagers, and the two studies analyze teenagers from different age groups over somewhat different time periods. The data from the NSFG represent teenagers aged 15-19 between 2007 and 2014. Data from the YRBS, meanwhile, analyze high-school students from 2013 to 2017.
More interesting is the fact that Guttmacher handled the results of the two studies very differently. The authors of the study finding increases in teenage contraceptive use cited these increases as the reason for the recent reduction in teen-pregnancy rates, and Guttmacher sent a press release promoting this conclusion. But when the YRBS found recent reductions in teen sexual activity, the authors never used these findings to analyze recent teen-pregnancy declines.
This discrepancy is unsurprising. Guttmacher is often quick to highlight studies that purport to find increases in contraceptive use among teenagers, but the group almost never publicizes declines in teen-pregnancy rates that could be attributable to reductions in teen sexual activity.
On the whole, analyses of short-term trends often receive too much attention from the media; long-term term trends tend to be more instructive. Since 1990, there has been a 64 percent decrease in the teen-pregnancy rate, which is an unheralded public-policy success story. There is solid evidence from both the NSFG and YRBS, too, that there has been a consistent, durable, and significant decline in teen sexual activity since the early 1990s. For instance, according to the YRBS, between 1991 and 2017, the percentage of high-school students who had ever had sexual intercourse fell from 54 percent to 40 percent.
Plenty of research has shown that reducing teen sexual activity is not impossible and should remain an important goal for policymakers.