Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible. Not so long ago a study of teen sexual behavior was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that contained a ton of information about what young people aged 15–24 were doing in the bedroom (or perhaps in the backseat of a car).

Those of us who work in sexual health were pretty excited to get these data because, though our society is obsessed with the idea of teen sexual behavior, we tend to be afraid to ask young people what they’re really doing. (Some parents even protest surveys about teen sex out of fears that asking the questions will give their kids new ideas that they just might try.)

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible
Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

This particular survey asked about oral, vaginal, and anal sex; contraception use; same-sex behavior; and even attitudes toward sex, pregnancy, and birth control.

But the media seized on just one thing — a statistic that found that the number of teens who had not engaged in any type of sexual behavior with another person had gone up. Headlines proclaimed “More teens waiting longer to have sex,” “More teens delay,” and, our favorite from a British publication, “No Sex Please, We’re Americans.” The journalists and experts interviewed for these articles seemed to agree that this was good news and that adults, parents in particular, should be pleased.

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

In his New York Times editorial on the importance of monogamy, Ross Douthat (2011) went so far as to say that this statistic was good news for all conservatives. The report, Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (hereafter referred to as Sexual Behavior 2006–2008), found that 29% of females and 27% of males aged 15–24 reported that they had never had sexual contact with another person.

This was a small but statistically significant change from 2002 when it was 22% for both males and females. It is important to note, however, that this small change was only statistically significant when looked at for the whole group of 15-to 24-year-olds. When looked at in two separate groups — 15– 19 and 20–24 years — it was no longer significant (and let’s face it when it comes to how we feel about young people and sex there are worlds between a 16-yearold and a 23-year-old).

More importantly, this statistic only refers to those young people who had never had any sexual contact (by which the researchers meant oral, anal, or vaginal sex) with another person; the percentage of young people who had had vaginal sex, for example, was unchanged from 2002, and we have no idea whether the “virgins” were kissing, caressing, or otherwise canoodling (Chandra et al., 2011).

It is true that the young people who fit into this no-sexual-contact-of-any-kind category are protected from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy. But we don’t think this is why the media zeroed in on this finding or why one expert declared it “extraordinary progress on a social issue that many once considered intractable.” When it comes to teen sexual behavior, our society seems to be stuck on the idea that no sex is the only acceptable finding.

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

To support this idea — that sexual behavior among teens is inherently bad — our society has painted a picture of young people as hormone-soaked risk-takers who cannot be trusted to make any good decisions about sex. And while it is true that teens are more likely to take risks in life than fully formed adults, this vision of them as utterly irresponsible when it comes to sex is simply a myth.

A deeper look at this study and others shows that many teens and young adultsare making responsible decisions; they delay sex, have relatively few partners, enter into real relationships, and use contraception. And yet, we adults give them so little credit for behaving, in many ways, better than us.

So What Are They Doing?
According to Teenagers in the United States; Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008, another report based on NSFG data, 42% of never-married females and 43% of never marriedmales have had vaginal sex in their lifetime. This number is not changed from 2002; however, leading up to 2002 there had been a steady decline with the percentage of never-married females aged 15–19 who had had vaginal intercourse dropping from 51% in 1988, to 49% in 1995, to 46% in 2002.

Similarly, for never-married males the percentage who had had vaginal sex dropped from 60% in 1988, to 55% in 1995, to 45% in 2002 but did not drop again (Martinez et al., 2011).

There are lots of theories about why the number of young people having sex began to drop during that time. Some argue that this is when society started becoming highly aware of the risk of HIV and that a life-threatening STI was a game changer for teenagers. Others credit sexuality education while still others undoubtedly credit abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. One mother of a teenager that we spoke to jokingly argued that it was all because of video games — if teens are really logging 30 hours a week of screen time, when would they possibly have time to have sex?

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

Others have suggested that teens are simply having different kinds of sex (oral and anal) instead. Sexual Behavior 2006–2008 found that anal sex is relatively rare (11% of females and 10% of males aged 15–19 report engaging in anal sex with an opposite-sex partner and 1% of males that age report doing so with a partner of the same sex).

That same study found that oral sex is quite common — 27% of 15-year-old boys and 23% of 15-year-old girls have ever had oral sex with an opposite-sex partner and, by ages 18 and 19, these numbers jump to 70% for boys and 63% for girls. In addition, 7% of females and 2% of males aged 15– 19 report oral sex with a same-sex partner.

Journalists and experts have spouted many theories about this rise in oral sex among teens; most of them negative. Some say that teens are using oral sex to avoid vaginal sex and, therefore, prevent pregnancy and live up to society’s hopes that they stay virginal. Others suggest that oral sex now has a certain cachet and teens are using it to gain popularity and prestige. And still others have referred to it (with fear in their voices we imagine) as a “gateway” to vaginal sex.

But this is rampant speculation. We don’t even know if there is a real rise in this behavior because we just started asking about it; 2002 was the first time questions on oral sex were included in the NSFG and there has been no statistically significant change since then. As for the theory that teens are having oral sex instead of vaginal sex to preserve their chastity, the numbers don’t seem to support it as only 7% of girls aged 15–19 and 9% of males aged 15–19 reported having had oral sex but not vaginal sex. In fact, only 50% of young people aged 15–24 reported having had oral sex before vaginal sex.

It will likely not come as a surprise to anyone that that the most common sexual behavior among teens is solo masturbation. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), for which researchers at Indiana University surveyed a representative sample of individuals aged 14–94 about a wide range of sexual behavior, found that 48% of teens aged 14–17 had engaged in solo masturbation in their lifetime compared to 22% who had given oral sex, 19% who had received it, 23% who had had vaginal intercourse, and 5% who had had anal intercourse (Fortenberry et al., 2010).

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible
Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible
Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

When Do They Start?
Part of the myth about teenagers behaving badly in the bedroom is the idea that they’re starting to have sex at younger and younger ages. We’ve all heard the stories about 12-year-olds being caught having sex in school, which send shivers down the spines of middle school parents everywhere, but for the most part it is not the youngest teens who are doing it. Sexual Behavior 2006–2008 found that the proportion of females who had engaged in vaginal sex rose steadily as they aged; 23% of 15-year-olds, 34% of 16-year-olds, 44% of 17-year-olds, and 62% of 18-to 19-year-olds. The numbers are similar when it comes to oral sex which (as mentioned earlier) jumps from 23% among 15-year-old girls to 63% among females aged 18 and 19. Males also become more experienced with age. The percentage of males who have had vaginal intercourse jumps from 21% at 15 to 66% at 18 and 19, and whereas 27% of 15-year-old boys have had oral sex, by the time they are 18 and 19, 70% have done so.

Though there are some people who believe sex is never appropriate outside of marriage regardless of age, when it comes to societal acceptance of sexual behavior we set very different standards for a 15-year-old than we do for even an 18-year-old. Teenagers in the United States suggested that teenagers themselves agreed with those standards: 68% of male teenagers and 60% of female teenagers agreed that it was okay for unmarried 18-year-olds to have sex if they have strong affection for each other, but only 39% of males and 27% of females said the same about 16-year-olds. (To give teens credit for behaving true to their beliefs, the percentages of teens that are having vaginal intercourse at 16 match these numbers pretty well.)

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

Who Are Their Partners?
While today’s teens are often portrayed as unable or unwilling to really bond with another person and as interested in sex but not relationships, once again the data suggest otherwise. In fact, only 14% of females and 25% of males described their first partner as “just friends” or someone they had just met.

And, according to Teenagers in the United States, the most common first partner for vaginal intercourse (reported by 72% of females and 56% of males) is someone with whom they were “going steady.” According to the NSSHB, more than two-thirds of females aged 14–17 reported that the last time they had received oral sex, given oral sex, or had penile–vaginal intercourse their partner had been a boyfriend/girlfriend.

A substantial proportion of males (49%), however, did report receiving oral sex from a partner other than a boyfriend/girlfriend. They’re not out looking for somebody new every weekend either. Teenagers in the United States (which limited its data to vaginal intercourse) found that many teenagers (26% of females and 29% of males) had had two lifetime partners and that only a few (14% of females and 16% of males) had had more than four partners in their lifetime.

The number of partners does not increase drastically when you take oral and anal sex into account. Sexual Behavior 2006–2008 found that 23% of 15-to 19-year-olds had one lifetime oral sex partner, 8% had two, 16% had three to six partners, 4% had between seven and 14 partners, and only 1% had more than 15.

How Often Are They Getting Some?
It turns out that young people aren’t having sex all that frequently. Sexual Behavior 2006–2008 found that while 42% of never-married teens had ever had vaginal intercourse, only 30% had done so in the 3 months prior to the survey, and only 25% had done so in the prior month. The NSSHB had similar findings: 21% of all teenagers aged 14–17 had engaged in vaginal intercourse in their lifetime but only 14% had done so in the 90 days prior to the study.

Okay, But Are They Using Protection?
One could argue that even if teens are not out there boffing like bunnies, they are opening themselves up to risks every time they do have sex. It’s true that all sex carries the potential risk of pregnancy and STIs but the good news is that many teens are taking appropriate precautions. In fact, when it comes to protecting themselves from pregnancy and disease young people tend to behave better than their adult counterparts.

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

Teenagers in the United States found that 84% of sexually active, never-married female teenagers used contraception at their most recent intercourse; 55% used a condom, 31% the pill, and 21% used both a condom and a hormonal method (the pill, the shot, the patch, and the contraceptive ring are all hormonal methods).

Sexually active, never-married males reported even better rates of contraceptive use; 93% used some method at last intercourse with 79% using condoms, 39% the pill, and 35% both a condom and a hormonal method. The data on contraceptive use at first intercourse were also encouraging as 79% of sexually active, never-married females and 87% of their male peers used some form of contraception the first time they had vaginal intercourse.

This is a particularly important statistic because research has shown that using a contraceptive method at first sex is a good indicator of future use. In fact, Teenagers in the United States found that teen females are almost twice as likely to have a birth before reaching age 20 if they did not use a contraceptive method at their first sex.

The news on condom use is also good; 95% of sexually active, never-married teenagers report having used a condom at some point and it is the most common contraceptive used both at first intercourse and most recent intercourse. Use of a condom at first intercourse among sexually active, never-married males actually increased from 71% in 2002 to 82% in 2006–2008.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic about condoms, however, is among those never-married males who had had sex within the month prior to the survey: 71% of males used condoms 100% of the time. Obviously we would want that number to be closer to 100% of males 100% of the time (and we definitely want to see improvement in this for their female counterparts only 51% of whom could say the same thing), but this is a good start.

That said, there were no significant changes in the percentage of teenaged females or males using contraception at first intercourse or most recent intercourse. In fact, the increases in contraceptive use that had been seen between 1995 and 2002 did not continue. One has to wonder if our unique and seemingly single-minded emphasis on getting teens to avoid (or delay) sexual activity has gotten in the way of encouraging teens to be responsible when they do become sexually active.

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

Keep Proving This Myth Wrong
The myth of teens as wild, sex-crazed, and irresponsible is just that — a myth — and a dangerous one as we would never want a teen to sink to society’s negative and ill-informed vision of him/her. To those of you reading this book who are between the ages of 15 and 24, let us take a moment to say congratulations for behaving better than most adults believed or expected you would, and while we’re at it, congratulations for behaving better than many adults. That said, we also have to take a moment to remind you that that our country still has ridiculously high rates of unintended pregnancy (among both teens and adults) and STI.

Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible
Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible
Young People Are Sexually Wild, Promiscuous, and Irresponsible

We believe that you can do even better — especially when it comes to condoms and other forms of contraception which have to be used consistently (every time) and correctly (the right way) — and prove, once and for all, that adults have it all wrong: teens are not wild and crazy sex maniacs, they’re thoughtful and responsible individuals entering into mature and healthy sexual relationships.

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