Is This a Golden Age of Teen Sexual Responsibility?

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Analysis Sexual Health

Is This a Golden Age of Teen Sexual Responsibility?

Angus Johnston

Adults tend to think that today's teens are wildly irresponsible about sex. But according to reputable data sources, teens today are not only more responsible about sex than their parents were when they were their age; in many cases, they’re more responsible about sex than their parents are now.

Ask a middle-aged person, particularly a parent, about today’s teens’ sexual habits and you’ll likely hear an earful. Young people are having sex younger than before, they’ll tell you, and they’re doing it cavalierly and irresponsibly. Middle-schoolers are having oral sex parties, and high schoolers have abandoned dating relationships for an endless stream of friends-with-benefits hookups with disastrous results. If you’re not in the mood for anecdote, public opinion surveys will tell you the same thing—a national poll conducted last year found that 74 percent of Americans believed the teen pregnancy rate was stable or rising.

There’s only one problem with this story: None of it is true. According to data from a long list of eminently reputable government and scholarly sources, we’re living through a golden age of responsible teen sexuality.

Here are just a few representative examples from the literature:

The average age at first intercourse in the United States is currently 17 years old, with only 16 percent of teens having sex before they turn 15. The percentage of high schoolers who say they’ve had sex has been dropping for 20 years, and now stands under 50 percent. The number who describe their first sexual activity as “unwanted” has dropped by a third in less than a decade, and now stands at well under 10 percent.

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Almost two-thirds of sexually active teens say their first sexual intercourse was with a steady romantic partner, and more than 80 percent say they used contraceptives the first time. More than two-thirds say they used a condom the first time they had sex—a dramatic advance from the late ’80s height of the AIDS crisis, when only half did.

What’s more, some of the most dramatic changes have been seen among Black youth, whose sexuality is the most stigmatized and demonized. Black high schoolers are now more likely to use condoms during sex than their white peers, while the rate of Black students report having sex at all is falling dramatically faster than that of whites.

At this point I suspect that some of you are bursting with frustration, waiting for me to acknowledge that all this is self-reported data. It’s true—this information is coming from the teens themselves, and it may not be completely accurate. But it’s important to note three things.

First, there’s no evidence that young people are more likely to lie to researchers about this stuff than they were ten or 20 or 30 years ago. Even if there’s some stretching of the truth happening, trends over time should be pretty reliable. And for the record, scholars use re-testing to check up on whether students are lying. They don’t find much evidence that they are.

Second, there’s no particular reason to believe that teens are more likely to minimize their sexual experience when talking to researchers than to exaggerate it. Yes, it’s possible that these numbers are a little low, but it’s also possible that they’re unrealistically high.

Third, and most important, we don’t have to take the teens’ word for it on all this stuff. If they were lying about how soon they were having sex, how often they were having it, and how often they were using contraception, we’d see the evidence in teen pregnancy rates.

What do those stats show? That between 1990 and 2008 the teen pregnancy rate dropped from 117 pregnancies for every 1,000 15-to-19-year-old girls to just 68, a decline of 42 percent. (The pregnancy rate among girls 13 and 14 years old has been dropping too, and stands at a tenth that of older teens.) While abortion rates have been falling as well, the decline in the teen childbirth rate has been particularly striking, and now stands at its lowest point since the government started keeping reliable statistics more than 70 years ago.

That means, in case you missed it, that the teen childbirth rate today isn’t just lower than it was in the ’60s or ’70s—it’s lower than it was in the ’50s. To put it another way, today’s teens are having fewer babies than their parents or their grandparents or their great-grandparents did.

So what’s the cause of all this? Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine of the Brookings Institute have crunched the birthrate numbers and think they’ve found some answers. Expansion of eligibility for Medicaid family planning services has apparently had an impact, and the worsening economy and strained social safety net seem to have had a small effect as well. (Their research suggests that neither improvements in sex education nor restrictions on abortion played any measurable role.)

Intriguingly, Kearney and Levine analyzed regional variation in teen childbirth rates in concert with MTV viewership patterns to conclude that the show 16 and Pregnant was responsible for as much as a third of the decline during the 18 months after the program’s debut.

Perhaps most striking, though, is what the researchers didn’t find—none of these factors, alone or in combination, fully account for the ongoing decline in childbirth rates in the United States. Once you tally up all the statistically significant economic, policy, and cultural factors, they find, you’re left with a steady drop of about 2.5 percent a year that has no ready explanation.

Every year, pretty much like clockwork, teen pregnancy rates drop a little further, and nothing that adults are doing explains it.

So what’s going on?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but from where I sit it seems that young people are just getting better at sex—better at making smart sexual choices, better at respecting each others’ boundaries, better at being responsible about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention when sex takes place.

I know your eyes are probably glazing over with these stats by now, but let’s look at just a few more, this time comparing teens’ sexual practices with their elders.

Today, about 80 percent of unplanned pregnancies are among women age 20 or older, and more than half of all teen pregnancies are the result of teenage girls being impregnated by men older than 19. And while more than 60 percent of teens report using condoms the last time they had sex, fewer than 30 percent of men over 50 did, even when in casual, nonmonogamous relationships.

In other words, today’s teens aren’t just more responsible about sex than their parents were when they were their age; in many cases, they’re more responsible about sex than their parents are now.

That’s pretty cool. And it’s a shame they’re not getting more credit.