The XX Factor

Teen Sex Rates Stay Down While Contraception Use Remains High

Willing to wait.

Photo by Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

A new report out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the rates of teenagers having sex have declined significantly in the past 25 years. Only 44 percent of girls and 47 percent of boys age 15-19 surveyed between 2011 and 2013 were sexually active, compared with 51 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in 1988. However, it seems the drop has leveled off. The study period before it—2006 to 2010—showed similar rates of sexual activity for teens. 

The main reason for this shift is that kids are waiting longer, which has been shown in previous analysis by the Guttmacher Institute. Basically, 19-year-olds are still mostly having sex, but 15- and 16-year-olds are having less of it, which accounts for the majority of the drop. The average age to lose your virginity for American teens is 17.

There’s a lot of reasons for this shift, but one can be safely ruled out: abstinence-only education. The theory behind abstinence-only is that if you discourage contraception use, you’ll scare kids straight. However, general contraception use remains high among teenagers, and use of emergency contraception has gone up. As analysis by Danielle Paquette and Weiyi (Dawn) Cai at the Washington Post suggests, kids are making better choices—both in delaying sex and being more responsible when they do have it—despite abstinence-only education, not because of it. Brooke Bokor, an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children’s National Health System, told them that the explosion in Internet access and smartphones in particular gives teenagers unprecedented access to sexual health information, which promotes better contraception use and teaches kids how to put off sex until they’re ready. 

This comports with research showing comprehensive sex education can help kids delay sexual initiation. The idea that knowing more about sex might disincline kids to have it early seems counterintuitive to a lot of people, but it’s not. Research focusing on specific comprehensive sex-ed programs shows that learning to be comfortable thinking and talking about sex helps kids have healthier, more respectful relationships, which can make it easier to delay intercourse. Knowledge gives kids confidence, in other words, and confidence leads to more communication and better decisions.

Sites like Bedsider and Scarleteen offer information about relationships and personal decision-making right alongside information about contraception, reframing sex as something you can do responsibly when you’re ready instead of treating it like it’s always a terrible mistake. Instead of telling kids “just say no,” they offer things like charts of sexual behaviors based on risk levels. Turns out when you treat kids like they’re capable of responsible decision-making, they often rise to those expectations. We should be doing more of that.