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“A Different Public Health Concern”: Meanings of Sexual Activity among Younger vs. Older Adolescents

By Tracy Leong, SIECUS Program Research Intern
Lawrence B. Finer, et al., “Sexual Initiation, Contraceptive Use, and Pregnancy among Young Adolescents,” Pediatrics (April 2013).
Researchers undertook an in-depth analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) to better understand differences in sexual behaviors among younger and older adolescents. The data covered sexual initiation (defined as time of first vaginal intercourse), contraceptive use, and pregnancy among American youth aged 10–19. Data from the 2006–2010 NFSG was available from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.  The analysis revealed key contrasts in sexual activity between younger and older adolescents.
Key Findings:
  • Sexual activity among youth age 12 and under is rare and usually nonconsensual.
  • Pregnancy rates among the youngest teens are very low.
  • Over the past 50 years, the median age of “first sex” (defined here as penis-vagina intercourse) among U.S. youth has never fallen below 17.6 years.
The term “adolescence” is problematic. It generally refers to the period of transition from childhood to young adulthood, but its exact meaning is imprecise. This sometimes enables popular misperception of young people’s actual sexual behaviors and related risks. Sexuality researchers and educators often use the terms “adolescents,” “teens,” and “youth” interchangeably. “Minors” is also sometimes used specifically for those youth who by law are considered unable to give consent to shared sexual behaviors (typically under age 18). In some studies, “youth” may include children as young as age 10 through young adults as old as age 25. Popular opinion in the U.S. often assumes adolescents are prone to “promiscuity” unless reined-in, and adults often assume that today’s teens engage in sex at earlier ages than they did, and with less regard for risks such as untended pregnancy.
Using nationally representative data from the NSFG, the researchers argue that, overall, levels of adolescent sexual activity (defined mainly in terms of penis-vagina intercourse) remain consistent with patterns noted in prior decades. For younger adolescents (ages 10-14) sexual activity is relatively uncommon; when it does occur in this age group, it is often not consensual.  Sexual initiation by age 12 was reported by only 2% of NFSG respondents, and by age 14 by only 8%. Popular misperceptions about older teens also overestimate their levels of sexual activity. According to NFSG data, nearly 1 in 4 respondents had not had penis-vagina intercourse even by age 20.
Among sexually experienced younger adolescents, reported use of contraceptives (defined in the study to include hormonal methods, barrier methods, withdrawal, and periodic abstinence) was low; the data suggest that the younger one is at sexual initiation, the less likely one will use contraceptives during first sex. For those who do begin to use contraceptives as younger adolescents, the time needed for “uptake” (that is, habitual use) is longer than for older adolescents.
As the researchers note, because much of the sexual activity experienced by the youngest adolescents is not consensual, it “represents a different public health concern than the broader issue of pregnancies to older teens.”[1]  Sexuality educators should be prepared to explain this difference to adults – parents, educators, and health service providers among others – to ensure that adolescents are not coerced into early sexual activity, and to correct misperceptions that adolescents in general are more sexually at risk now than in previous decades. Sound sexuality education is inclusive of youth regardless of level of sexual experience, and reflects the reality that a majority of older adolescents are sexually active and, in many cases, in need of contraceptive education and services.

[1] Finer LB, Philbin JM (2013). Sexual initiation, contraceptive use, and pregnancy among young adolescents. J Pediatrics. April; doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-3495: