TEEN SEX: Rates Of Activity Decline Dramatically; Multiple Causes Cited
For the first time in two decades, fewer teenagers are having sex, and those that do are using condoms more often, according to a new survey published in the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report. Based on questionnaires of over 55,000 ninth- through twelfth-graders between 1991-1997, the report found that "the prevalence of sexual experience" decreased 11%, from 54.1% in 1991 to 48.4% in 1997. The number of teens who reported having multiple sex partners (more than four) decreased 14%, while condom use among sexually active teens increased 23% (MMWR, 9/18 issue). Dr. Janet Collins of the CDC and lead author of the study, called the declines in teen sex rates significant. She said, "The percent of high school students who report ever having had sex has declined significantly. And the percentage of students who report ever having four or more sexual partners in their lifetime has declined significantly." NPR's John Hamilton reports, however, that the study revealed "puzzling details." Most of the decrease was among boys, but there was little change among girls and Hispanic teens (NPR, "All Things Considered," 9/17). In fact, there was a 15% decline in the number of boys having sex, (from 57.4% to 48.8%) and a 14% decline of those who reported having multiple sexual partners (from 18.7% to 16%) and a 25% decline in the number of boys who reported multiple sex partners (from 23.4% to 17.6%). However, there was not a similar "significant linear decrease" among girls in either of these categories. And while 13% fewer white and 11% fewer black teens engaged in sexual activity, there was not a significant decreased among Hispanic students (MMWR, 9/18 issue). Click here to access the full report, or type: www.cdc.gov/epo/mmwr/mmwr_ss.html directly onto your web browser. The Washington Times reports that the biggest decline was among eleventh-graders. Overall, sexual activity among this group declined 20%, from 62.4% in 1991 to 49.7% in 1997. Ninth-graders had the smallest overall decline: 38% said they had had sexual intercourse in 1997, compared to 39% in 1991 (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 9/18).
Most observers hailed the results of the survey. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said: "For the first time in two decades, fewer young people are engaging in sexual behavior that puts them at risk for HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. This positive trend represents a reversal of the increasing rates of sexual intercourse among adolescents that began occurring in the 1970s and 1980s. It is truly good news for all of us involved in the lives of America's teenagers" (CDC release, 9/17). Lloyd Kolbe, director of the CDC's division on adolescent health said the survey shows that "students who haven't engaged in sexual intercourse now can say they are in the majority." He said the decline was probably attributable to "the efforts of 'many, many' people, such as families talking 'around the dinner table,' school-sex-education programs, groups that promote sexual abstinence and groups that promote condom use among sexually active teens." Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation suggested the results were due to "grass-roots abstinence programs." He said, "We know that children can respond to moral messages." Michael Resnick, president of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Centers, said, "I suspect there is a slowly, slowly changing shift in norms and cultural values, and it may be that kids are picking it up and deciding to delay the age of first intercourse, which is very positive" (Washington Times, 9/10).
Sex Ed Works
The Los Angeles Times reports that other experts said the survey shows that sex education does not promote promiscuity, "as critics had feared" (Cimons, 9/18). "As with almost every social ill, education once again proves to be the best antidote," said Daniel Zingale, executive director of AIDS Action. "When it comes to HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy prevention, we must speak to the reality of today's young people," he said (AIDS Action release, 9/17).
Good, Bad And The Ugly
Experts also noted that the findings of lower rates of sex gelled with evidence of lower pregnancy and STD rates for teens. "We're seeing important decreases in the percentage of young people who are infected with gonorrhea and we're also seeing decreases in the percentage of young people who are becoming pregnant," said the CDC's Kolbe (Reuters/Boston Globe, 9/18). However, study author Collins pointed out that "teenage pregnancy remains much more common in this country than in other industrialized nations, with 1 million teenagers becoming pregnant each year," and 3 million catching STDs. Alan Guttmacher spokesperson Susan Tew conceded that the survey was "good news," but said the "bad news is we shouldn't think our work is done." And the Washington Post reports that "while teenagers are changing their behavior in ways that make them less likely to contract AIDS, the disease is nevertheless more of a risk to them than it was a decade ago because the pool of infected partners has increased" (Vobejda, 9/18).