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Middle Schoolers: What Sexuality Educators Need to Know

By Isabella Joslin, SIECUS Program Research Intern

Michele J. Moore, Elissa M. Barr, Tammie M. Johnson, “Sexual Behaviors of Middle School Students: 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results from 16 Locations,” Journal of School Health (January 2013).

Early sexual activity corresponds with higher risk for unintended pregnancy, HIV/STIs, and abusive sexual relationships, yet there is a relative lack of data on middle school students’ sexual behaviors. This secondary data analysis looks at the results of selected questions from the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey-Middle School (YRBS-MS). The authors argue for 1) more widespread assessment of middle school students’ sexual practices (including delay) and 2) implementation of sexuality education before, or in, the first years of middle school.

Key Findings:

  • According to the results of the 2009 YRBS-MS, up to 20% of sixth graders, up to 33% of seventh graders, and up to 42% of eighth graders have engaged in sexual intercourse, depending on location.[1]

  • Despite high rates of middle school sexual activity in some locations, the percentage of these students receiving HIV/AIDS education is low.
  • There are significant differences in middle schoolers’ sexual behaviors across race, gender and age.


According to YRBS-MS data, sexual activity increases with age, starting even before middle school. In addition, male students almost always report higher rates of sexual activity than females.

YRBS-MS data found a higher percentage of Black students than Hispanic and White who reported ever having sexual intercourse, or having intercourse with 3 or more partners. This disparity highlights a need for more and earlier risk-reduction programs targeted to these youth.

The authors address potential problems with the self-reporting format of the YRBS-MS, even though the survey is anonymous: the reliability of the data may decrease since some students might under-report their activity if it is stigmatized in their communities, and some might over-report if they perceive that sexual activity is viewed favorably by peers. Additionally, because the YRBS survey is voluntary and each school district or state must choose to participate, the sample size of middle schoolers is small.

In their discussion of condom use and HIV education, the authors hypothesize that high-risk sexual behaviors are more likely in places where discussion of sexual activities is stigmatized: “Some studies have shown that when young people are not comfortable admitting they are sexually active, they are less likely to use condoms. Perhaps that is because some of these locations could be more rural and/or conservative places, and may have norms that inhibit provision of sexuality education and personal admission of being sexually active.”[2] In contrast, the authors posit, in locations with higher rates of students’ reporting both sexual activity and condom use “perhaps this is because there is a culture of acceptance of sexual behavior, which includes the use of condoms.”[3] Their overall recommendation is to increase sexuality education, especially HIV/AIDS programs before and during middle school.  

Because middle school students are clearly engaging in sexual activity, there is a need for better understanding of their behaviors. This study demonstrates the need for the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, especially for middle school students, to provide useful data that can help sexuality educators craft age-appropriate instruction that promotes healthy behaviors. The authors note this disparity as key for creating effective, age-appropriate sexuality education programs.

[1] Moore MJ, Barr EM, Johnson TM (2013). Sexual behaviors of middle school students: 2009 youth risk behavior survey results from 16 locations. J. School Health, 83(1): 61-68, <>.

[2]Moore, et al., 66.