EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

New national data suggest that the proportion of high school students who ever had sexual intercourse has dropped, particularly among students in earlier grades and among black and Hispanic students.

  • Previous research findings indicate that an early start of sexual activity is associated with factors such as more sexual partners, lack of condom use, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infection in adolescence. Most adolescents begin sexual activity during high school, data show.
  • A 2016 analysis of national data indicated that the number of teens who currently are sexually active dropped from 38% in 1991 to 30% in 2015.

New national data suggest that the proportion of high school students who ever had sexual intercourse has dropped, particularly among students in earlier grades and among black and Hispanic students.1

Previous research findings indicate that an early start of sexual activity is associated with factors such as more sexual partners, lack of condom use, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infection (STI) in adolescence.2 Most adolescents begin sexual activity during high school, data show.3

In the new study, an analysis of data from national Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, researchers determined that the proportion of high school students across the nation who had ever had sexual intercourse decreased “significantly” during the period of 2005–2015 overall, among ninth and 10th grade students, among black students across all grades, and among Hispanic students in three grades. The researchers note that a similar pattern by grade was seen in nearly half of the states that had available data.

Examination of the Data

In examining the data closer, researchers noted several distinctions by sex, grade, and race/ethnicity. Among students overall, significant decreases were noted among all sex and race/ethnicity subgroups except white students, the scientists note. While decreases were seen among ninth and 10th grade students, no such drops were seen in 11th and 12th grade students. The researchers point out that a similar pattern was seen in almost half (14) of the states in which the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse decreased in ninth grade only or in ninth and 10th grades only. North Dakota and Wyoming experienced no decreases by grade. While statistically significant decreases were observed among black students in all grades and Hispanic students in three grades (ninth, 10th, and 12th grades), there were no statistically significant decreases observed among white students in any of the grades.1

Anita Nelson, MD, professor and chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, CA, notes that the survey does not include teens who have dropped out of school.

“But the good news there is that high school graduation rates also increased 2010-2015,” she points out.

Talk With Teens

This good news comes on the heels of data published in 2016, in which an analysis of national adolescent data indicated that the number of teens who currently are sexually active had dropped from 38% in 1991 to 30% in 2015.3 According to the 2016 statistics, current sexual activity, which is defined as having had sexual intercourse during the past three months, decreased from 34% in 2013 to 30% in 2015.

A 2017 review of national 2011-2015 data indicates that more teens are using contraception: 95% of males and 90% of females ages 15-19 reported using a contraceptive method at last sex.4 The method most commonly used among teenagers in 2011–2015 remained the condom (reported by 97.4% of teenage females), followed by withdrawal (59.7%), and the contraceptive pill (55.5%).5

Educating teens about sexual health is “critical,” says Lynn Barclay, president of the Research Triangle Park, NC-based American Sexual Health Association.

“While these trends are encouraging, we mustn’t believe for a minute that the work is done,” notes Barclay. “Twenty million sexually transmitted infections occur each year in the U.S., and half are in youth ages 15-24.”

When it comes to educating young people, clinicians must offer more information than dwelling on the physical aspects of sex, Barclay states.

“It does little good to tell a teen to ‘use a condom’ if they lack the skills or power to negotiate safer sex in a relationship,” says Barclay. “We need discussions around values, boundaries, gender differences, and self-image — they all play a huge part in making healthy choices.” (Use a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention patient handout, “Know Your Condom Do’s and Don’ts,” available at http://bit.ly/2CSYtEi, to help teens understand the importance of condom use.) 

REFERENCES

  1. Ethier KA, Kann L, McManus T. Sexual intercourse among high school students — 29 states and United States overall, 2005-2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;66:1393-1397.
  2. Heywood W, Patrick K, Smith AM, Pitts MK. Associations between early first sexual intercourse and later sexual and reproductive outcomes: A systematic review of population-based data. Arch Sex Behav 2015;44:531-569.
  3. Kann L, McManus T, Harris WA, et al. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2015. MMWR Surveill Summ 2016;65:1-174.
  4. Abma JC, Martinez GM. Sexual activity and contraceptive use among teenagers in the United States, 2011-2015. Natl Health Stat Report 2017;104:1-22.