Whether people are talking in 1997, 2007, or 2017, kids today are reckoned to be oversexed. In this past decade, media representation of teen mothers has hyped this idea using inaccurate stereotypes. A great rebuttal to move us beyond the “oversexed” cliché comes from Joyce C. Abma and Gladys M. Martinez. Their report for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) presents national estimates of sexual activity as well as contraceptive use among males and females.
The report summarized data collected using in-person interviews from 2011-2015 with people between ages 15 and 44. A total of 20,621 people were interviewed, including 4,134 teenagers. The teen group involved 2,047 women and 2,087 men.
They learned whether the respondent had ever had sex—and if so, whether they had had sex recently. Respondents who had ever had sexual intercourse were defined as “sexually experienced”; for these teens, researchers also learned how recently and how often they had had sex. These respondents were also asked about contraceptive methods they had used—if at all. In the report, they compared what they found to data from the 1988, 1995, 2002, and 2006 National Survey of Adolescent Males, which had been conducted by the Urban Institute. This way, they could learn really how the sex lives of kids today measure up with those of the past.
What differences were found… and were there any similarities? Rates of sexual experience across the years remained similar. In 2011—2015, 42.4 percent of never-married teen women and 44.2 percent of never married teen men were sexually experienced. And this was the same as a decade before, in the 2002 data, as well as the 2006-2010 data.
And, contraception use was up. Teen womens’ use of contraception increased from 74.5 percent in 2002 to 81 percent in 2011-2015. Teen men used condoms more, too, increasing from 70.9 percent in 2002 to 76.8 percent in 2011-2015.
Black women teens are slowing down, while white men teens speeding up. The researchers reported significant racial differences. For example, never-married non-Hispanic Black women teenagers decreased from approximately 57 percent sexually experienced in 2002 to 47 percent sexual experienced in 2011-2015. Conversely, never married non-Hispanic teen white men’s sexual experience increased from a rate of 37 percent in 2006-2010 to 43 percent in 2011-2015.
But it also looks like age plays a role. They found that in 2011-2015, men were more likely than women to have had sexual intercourse during the ages of 15 and 16. Once they got to age 17, the probabilities were similar for both sexes. Specifically, 16 percent of men had sexual intercourse earlier compared with 11 percent of women, but by age 18, 55 percent of all teenagers were sexually experienced. Other factors included race, living situations, and parental education. The probability of having sexual intercourse by age 18 was high for non Hispanic Black teenagers when compared with non-Hispanic White and Hispanic teenagers, adolescents who did not live with both biological parents at age 14, and those who had mothers who did not attend college at all.
So, what exactly does this mean? It looks like adolescents are taking the steps they need to be protected: contraceptive use is up in both men and women. While both sexes have different rates of sexual experience and different contraceptive methods, this report suggests that “it gets better” – in the sense that teens are doing their share to promote sexual health.
Note for further consideration! It gets better might have another meaning too, not addressed in this study: in a 2014 study that looked at people starting at age 20, young people are having more oral sex and more oral sex as part of their sexual debut. This might factor into trends in teen sexual health, too.
Where do teens learn how to promote sexual health? Likely through messages provided through media, school, community, and family. Sounds like sex ed to me. To continue this good trend, this means we have to start separating the truth from stereotypes surrounding teenagers and see that sex education is valuable. Oh, and let’s make sure that sex ed addresses oral sex too!
Tasia Clemons is a Senior Sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.