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Questions and Answers: Adolescent Sexuality

 

Is there good data on adolescent sexual behavior?

Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of scientific data on adolescent sexual behavior. Research designed to examine this subject is often controversial as adults seem to falsely fear that asking young people about sex is tantamount to giving them ideas and encouragement. While we have some information about sexual intercourse and contraceptive use among teens, we know very little about other behaviors such as masturbation, oral sex, and anal intercourse. In addition, much of the current research is limited to heterosexual behaviors.

Where does the data on adolescent sexual behavior come from?

One of the primary sources of data, is the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS) conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  This study measures sexual behaviors, alcohol and other drug use, tobacco use, unhealthy dietary behaviors, physical inactivity, and behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence. The YRBS is conducted every two years with students in grades nine through 12 at high schools across the country. It provides the most current information about adolescent sexual behavior, including history of sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners, and contraceptive use.  The most recent YRBS was released in 2007.

In addition to the YRBS, the CDC also collects data for the National Survey of Family Growth (NFSG) which asks questions about reproductive and sexual health to men and women ages 15–44.  The data is frequently broken down by age and as such can give us a picture of what adolescents are doing.  The most recent NSFG was conducted in 2002. 

Other organizations and institutions such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and Seventeen Magazine periodically conduct surveys with young people that provide insight into their sexual behavior, attitudes, and knowledge.  

What is the average age of first sexual intercourse?

In 2002, the NSFG asked individuals ages 15–44 the age at which they first had intercourse.  The mean age for women was 17.4 and the mean age for men was 17.0. [1]  We have to remember, however, that this data includes individuals of different generations. The YRBS does not ask young people the age at which they first had intercourse, however, one question on the surveys asks students if they had engaged in sexual intercourse before age 13.  In 2005, 6.2 percent of high school students reported having engaged in sexual intercourse before age 13.   

Are teenagers having sex?

According to the 2007 YRBS, 46.8 percent of high school students (45.7 percent of high school females and 47.9 percent of high school males) reported having engaged in sexual intercourse. [2]  The NSFG had similar results, finding that 45.5 percent of young women and 45.7 percent of young men ages 15–19 have engaged in sexual intercourse. The data show that as young people get older they are more likely to have engaged in intercourse.  According to the YRBS, 63.1 percent of high school seniors reported having had engaged in sexual intercourse, and the NSFG found that 68.8 percent of young women and 64.3 percent of young men ages 18–19 had engaged in sexual intercourse.  

Are young people engaging in sexual behaviors other than intercourse?

The YRBS only asks young people about vaginal intercourse.  The NSFG, however, also included a question on oral sex.  It found that 54.3 percent of females ages 15–19 had engaged in oral sex with a male and 55.2 percent of males ages 15–19 had engaged in oral sex with a female.  In addition, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 36 percent of young people ages 15–17 reported having engaged in oral sex.  Interestingly, some of these young people (24 percent) reported having oral sex to avoid having intercourse. [3]  

We have very little information about other sexual behaviors that young people might be engaging in such as kissing, mutual masturbation, or anal intercourse.  One study of men ages 15–19, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, found that among men who had never had vaginal intercourse, 67 percent reported that they had touched a woman’s breasts, 22 percent had been stimulated to the point of orgasm by a partner, 18 percent had received oral sex, and 14 percent had given oral sex. [4]

We also have very little information on sexual behavior among same-sex couples.  See our Fact Sheet: Questions and Answers – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity for the data we do have (add link).

Are young people protecting themselves when they have sex?

Research shows that many young people are using pregnancy- and disease-prevention methods. According the YRBS, 62.8 percent of sexually active high school students (those students who reported having had sexual intercourse in the three months prior to the survey) used a condom the last time they had intercourse.  And, 17.6 percent of sexually active high school students report using birth control pills to prevent pregnancy before their last act of sexual intercourse.  The NSFG asked young people whether they had used a condom the first time they had sexual intercourse and found that 66.4 percent of young women and 70.9 percent of young men ages 15–19 had done so.

Although many young people are using protection, young people in general are not using condoms and contraception consistently.  According to a report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 49.3 percent of males and 54.2 percent of females agree that pressure from their partners is one of the main reasons that adolescents do not use birth control. [5]

A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation also found mixed reactions to the mention of condoms.  According to the survey, 94 percent of participants ages 15– 24 said if a romantic partner suggested using a condom they would feel that the person was “being responsible,” 93 percent said they would feel “glad the person brought it up,” 90 percent said they would feel “relieved,” 90 percent said they would feel “respected,” 88 percent said they would feel “cared for.”  In contrast, 48 percent said they would feel “like their partner was suspicious of their past sexual history,” 46 percent said they would feel “suspicious of their partner’s sexual history,” and 9 percent said they would feel “insulted” if a sexual partner suggested using a condom. [6]

How do teens make decisions about when and whether to have sex?

There is very little research into what motivates young people’s decisions regarding sexual behavior.  One survey conducted by Seventeen Magazine and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked sexually active participants why they had “had sex” and participants who were not sexually active why they made that decision.  Of participants ages 15–17 who had “had sex,” 51 percent said when they had sexual intercourse for the first time it was because they “met the right person,” 45 percent said it was because “the other person wanted to,” 32 percent said it was because they were “just curious,” 28 percent said it was because they “hoped it would make the relationship closer,” and 16 percent said it was because “many of their friends already had.” [7]

Among participants ages 15–17 who had not “had sex,” 83 percent said it was because they were “worried about pregnancy,” 74 percent said it was a “conscious decision” they had made to wait, 73 percent said they were” worried about STDs,” 64 percent said it was because they “worry about what their parents might think,” 63 percent said it was because they “have not met the right person,” 63 percent said they felt they are “far too young,” and 52 percent said it was because of their “religious beliefs.” [8]


[1] All NSFG is information taken from:  Key Statistics NSFG, Cycle 6 (2002), (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics), accessed 11 March 2008, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/about/major/nsfg/abclist.htm.
[2] All YRBS information is taken from:  Danice K. Eaton, et al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2005,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 55, no. SS-5 (9 June 2006): 1-108, accessed 26 January 2007, <http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/index.htm>.
[3] Tina Hoff, et al, National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes, and Experiences, (Menlo Park, CA: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003), p. 14.
[4] In Their Own Right: Addressing the Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs of American Men, (New York, NY: The Guttmacher Institute, 2002), p. 83.
[5] Risky Business: Teens Tell Us What They Really Think of Contraception and Sex, (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2000) p.1.  (Survey of 510 young people, ages 12–17).
[6] Hoff, et al, National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults, p.35.
[7] SexSmarts: Decision-Making,( Menlo Park, CA: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation and Seventeen Magazine, September 2000).
[8] Ibid.

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