Teenage Sex: Why More Young People Are Waiting

By Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe | Commonweal, April 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Teenage Sex: Why More Young People Are Waiting


Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe, Commonweal


The popular portrait of teenage sexual behavior can leave many parents with the disquieting sense that American teens are becoming sexually experienced at ever-younger ages. The media depicts an adolescent culture where casual sex is the norm, where early sex has killed off first love, where kids engage in sex acts with nonromantic partners, also known as "buddies with benefits," and where most teens have had sexual intercourse long before they graduate from high school. More than a few parents wonder if it is even possible for teens today to resist the pressures to have sex at an early age.

But a large-scale survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, offers a different picture. As its findings show, the trend among teens has been moving in the opposite direction. Teens aren't having sex at younger ages. They're delaying sexual intercourse until they are older. In 1995, the share of never-married girls, fifteen to seventeen years old, who had ever had sex was 38 percent. In 2002, however, it had dropped to 30 percent. The decline was even greater for fifteen-to seventeen-year-old boys. It fell by 12 points, from 43 percent to 31 percent. Perhaps most unexpected, the share of never-married teenage boys who had had sexual intercourse by age nineteen dropped from 83 percent in 1995 to 65 percent in 2002.

Clearly, teen behavior is turning in a more positive direction. But the really interesting question is: what accounts for this new direction? Why are impressionable, impulsive, and hormonally challenged teenagers exercising greater sexual restraint? And why now? It can't be because of a more conservative popular culture. Hollywood and Madison Avenue continue to push the edge of the envelope in presenting to teens and even children what is sexually permissible. Nor can the shift be chalked up to a ceasefire in the battle over sex education between opposing armies of professional advocates. Washington-based partisans on the right and left continue to battle as fiercely as ever over the content of sex-education curricula in the public schools and over federal dollars for their favored programs.

The most likely reason for this trend lies not in elite influences but in grassroots public opinion. Though the nation is closely divided on many cultural issues, it is not divided over sexual abstinence for teens. …

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