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New Evidence on Youth Sexual Behavior Suggest a New Direction Is Needed

A report released on July 13 from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics revealed that the U.S. birth rate among teens decreased over the past 15 years, as condom use among high school students increased.  The report, titled “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2007,” was compiled from data and studies at 22 federal agencies and addressed 38 key indicators of youth behavior.  According to the report, the birth rate among girls ages 15–17 has declined from 39 births per 1,000 girls in 1991 to 21 births per 1,000 girls in 2005.  The report also noted that in 2005, 47% of high school students reported having ever had sexual intercourse compared with 54% in 1991, and in 2005 63% of sexually active high school students (students who reported having had sexual intercourse in the three months prior to the survey) reported having used condoms the last time they had sexual intercourse, compared to 46% in 1991.1

While many members of the media and the federal government touted the decline in teen sexual behavior as a triumph for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the Washington Post asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a more detailed analysis of the data on young people’s sexual behavior.  The data was collected as part of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS) of 2005. The YRBS, conducted every two years with students in grades nine through 12 at high schools across the country, measures sexual behaviors, alcohol and other drug use, tobacco use, unhealthy dietary behaviors, physical inactivity, and behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence.. It provides the most current information about adolescent sexual behavior, including history of sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners, and contraceptive use.2

 The CDC found that, although the percentage of teens reporting having had sexual intercourse dropped continually between 1991 and 2001, there were no changes in the percent of high school students who had ever had sexual intercourse between 2001 and 2005.  Although no one knows the reasons for the plateau, some experts speculated that the decline could be a result of a combination of factors including a growing complacency among youth about HIV/AIDS. 3

Others point out that the plateau coincides with an explosion of federal spending on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs which have been shown to be ineffective.  The total spending on the federal and state levels for these programs is approaching $1.5 billion with over a billion of this amount having been spent since 2001.4

Some experts are also concerned that the leveling off in the teen sex rate might foreshadow an upsurge in sexual activity which could result in an increase in the teen pregnancy rate.
David Landry of the Guttmacher Institute in New York stated, “Although we can celebrate the decline in teenage pregnancy, the United States still has a very high level of teenage births and pregnancy compared to other industrialized nations.”5


  1. America‘s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2007, Forum on Child and Family Statistics, accessed 20 July 2007,
  2. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control), 9 June 2006, accessed 20 July 2007, <>.
  3. Rob Stein, “Teen Sex Rates Stop Falling, Date Show,” Washington Post, 22 July 2007, A01, accessed 24 July 2007, <
  4. A Brief History of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs, (Washington, DC:SIECUS), accessed 31 June 2007,
  5. Stein.