Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Trends in Adolescent Sexual Behavior, Health, and Education: A Conversation with Laura Lindberg

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Trends in Adolescent Sexual Behavior, Health, and Education: A Conversation with Laura Lindberg

Article excerpt

Kappan editor Rafael Heller talks with one of the nation's leading researchers in the field of adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

KAPPAN: Tell us a bit about the Guttmacher Institute and the kind of work you do there.

LINDBERG: Guttmacher is a research and policy organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health in the United States and around the world. We've been around for quite a while--actually, we're celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Our office in New York City, where I'm based, is dedicated mainly to research, and our Washington, D.C., office focuses mainly on policy. In some ways, our mission overlaps with other organizations--like SIECUS [the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.], for example, in that both organizations support high-quality sex education--but we don't implement programs or provide services or curriculum materials. Our role is to collect accurate and reliable information and share it with policy makers and the broader public.

I've worked here at Guttmacher for about 14 years, conducting research on young people's sexual behavior, their access to and use of contraception, the kinds of sex education they receive, and a range of other topics. Overall, I've been studying issues related to adolescent reproductive health for more than two decades. I'm a sociologist with a background in demography, which means that I tend to focus on large data sets, crunching the numbers to get a big-picture understanding of the ways in which adolescents' behaviors and attitudes change over time.

KAPPAN: Let's start with the big picture, then: What stands out about the sexual behavior and experiences of today's adolescents? How have things changed over the last 10 or 20 or 40 years?

LINDBERG: Some things have changed pretty dramatically, particularly since the beginning of the HIV crisis in the mid-1980s. That was a major turning point in adolescent sexual behavior, which is no surprise because the HIV crisis marked a turning point in everybody's sexual behavior. As a nation, we started to air a lot of conversations that used to be held in secret, if they happened at all. For example, that's when the condoms started to come out from behind the pharmacy counter and be displayed in the aisle. And, no surprise, condom use increased a lot over the following decade.

Beginning in the 1980s, we started to see declines in the share of adolescents reporting that they had ever had sex. The rates began to plateau in the mid-2000s, and for the last dozen years the percent of adolescents who reported having sex hasn't really changed at all. Of course, we're still talking about a majority of the adolescent population; 3 out of 4 young people have sex during their teenage years. But that figure is significantly lower than it was in the 1980s.

Let me reiterate that I'm talking about national data here--things might look very different in your own school district or community, but the overall trend is that fewer young people are having sex now than they were a generation ago.

Another notable trend, which we've seen more recently, is a modest increase in the age at which people first have sex. For example, national data shows that the share of 9th graders reporting that they've had sex has gone down from about a third in 2001 to about 1 in 5 in 2017.

KAPPAN: Does that hold true for all student populations?

LINDBERG: Pretty much. We don't have data comparing urban, rural, and suburban students, but boys and girls and students of all races have been waiting longer to have sex.

The picture does get a little more complicated when you dig into the data, though. For instance, boys report having sex for the first time at a slightly younger age than girls, and Black boys slightly earlier than White boys. By age 17, however, the rates generally even out, with no differences by population.

KAPPAN: What about adolescents' access to and use of contraceptives? …

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