Changes over Time in Teenage Sexual Relationships: Comparing the High School Class of 1950, 1975, and 2000

Article excerpt

Much of the research from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s has suggested that young persons' sexual attitudes and behaviors have become more liberal over time. A number of studies have found that premarital sex became much more acceptable (Coles & Stokes, 1985; Hildebrand & Abramowitz, 1984; Hunt, 1974; King & Sobel, 1975; Robinson et al., 1991; Roche, 1986; Roche & Ramsbey, 1993). In addition, the changes in sexual behaviors observed during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s were so evident that they were viewed as a sexual revolution. Associated with this sexual revolution was an increase in the level of sexual activity among adolescents and young adults that reflected increasingly positive attitudes toward and increased incidence of premarital sexual intercourse (Dunn, Knight, & Glascoff, 1992).

After the 1960s, the proportion of young people engaging in premarital sex rose dramatically. By the later 1980s, about half of teen girls were sexually active (Lauer & Lauer, 1997). Another study found that although 50% of adolescents aged 15-19 engaged in sexual intercourse in the 1960s, by 1987 the reported level of sexually active young persons had risen to 70% (Bajracharya, Sarvela, & Isberner, 1995). What has become clear is that, over the decades, growing proportions of women and men have become sexually active in their teens. By the 1990s, 56% of women and 73% of men indicated they had had intercourse before their 18th birthday (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994). At each age between 15 and 20, higher proportions of teens are sexually experienced today than were in the early 1970s. In addition, the average age at first intercourse has declined. Teenagers today have sex for the first time 6 months earlier than did their parents.

As the age at first sexual intercourse has gone down, the number of sexual partners has increased. For example, a study by Gullotta, Adams, and Montemayor (1993) found that among 15- to 24-year-olds who initiated sexual intercourse before age 18, 75% reported having had two or more partners, and 45% reported having had four or more partners. The percentage of 15- to 19-year-old females who reported two or more sexual partners increased from 38% in 1971 to 51% in 1979 and to 59% in 1988. Prince and Bernard (1998) found that approximately 20% of their sample reported having had two partners and about 15% indicated having had three or more partners during a one-year period.

Some have suggested that the advent of AIDS in the 1980s may be slowing this trend toward increased permissiveness (Chapple & Talbot, 1989; Hatfield & Rapson, 1996). Some studies demonstrate that, although adolescents are informed about the severity of HIV/AIDS, know how the infection is transmitted, and are aware of prevention strategies, they continue to engage in unsafe sexual behaviors (e.g., Prince & Bernard, 1998). In fact, a review of the literature by D'Augelli and Herschberger (1995) concluded that in response to HIV, many teens have not modified risky sexual behavior, despite their knowledge about how HIV is transmitted. Moreover, Goertzel and Bluebond-Langner (1991) reported that previous research showed there was little change in AIDS-related behavior in low-risk populations despite increased knowledge and awareness.

On the other hand, other studies suggest that sexually active individuals have grown more aware of AIDS and appear to have altered their sexual behaviors as a consequence (Sprecher & Regan, 1996). Some (11-12%) report having changed to less risky sexual behavior because of AIDS (Smith, 1991). A study by Roche and Ramsbey (1993) found that most young people reported a change in attitude since first learning about AIDS. Change in reported behavior was not as widespread as reported change in attitude: only about half reported a behavioral change. Of greatest importance is the increased use of condoms among sexually active young people. …