Popular media articles on adolescent sexuality usually paint a portrait of the modern American teenager as hypersexual. Among other things, these articles give the impression that teens are having sex at younger and younger ages, they’re constantly hooking up and sexting, and they’re engaging in a lot of risky sexual behavior, thanks to a diet of highly sexual movies and TV shows. By contrast, scientific research on the sex lives of adolescents suggests a very different set of conclusions. Here are 10 things you should know about the sex lives of American teenagers, according to science.
1.) The average age of first sexual intercourse is approximately 17 for both men and women—a number that has remained remarkably stable since the early 2000s, according to CDC data. Despite what you may have heard otherwise, sex among very young adolescents actually appears to be rather rare. (Please note that these and most other studies of teen sex have focused specifically on experiences with penile-vaginal intercourse)
2.) Contrary to popular belief, CDC data also reveal that fewer—not more—teens today have had sex compared to the 1980s and 1990s.
4.) Most of the sex today’s teens are having isn’t in the form of casual hookups—in fact, research has found that most of it occurs in the context of romantic relationships.
5.) Adolescent sexting isn’t nearly as common as we’ve been led to believe. For instance, a national study of 1,560 adolescents aged 10-17 found that just 2.5% had taken sexual photos of themselves, while 7.1% had received sexts from others. Prevalence rates certainly vary across studies and sexting does appear to increase as adolescents age; however, research suggests that only a relatively small minority of them are sexting.
6.) While longitudinal research has found that teen sexting is linked to increased odds of becoming sexually active, it does not appear to be a “gateway” to risky sex, as some have argued. In fact, research has found no link between sexting and participating in risky sexual behaviors.
7.) By contrast, longitudinal studies have found that adolescents exposed to sexualized media (i.e., movies with a lot of sexual content) are not only more likely to become sexually active, but to engage in risky sexual practices. However, this association is very small and it is not causal, meaning it could be explained by other factors, such as lower levels of parental supervision.
8.) Although the media is a convenient target to blame when teens engage in risky sex, teens’ sex education courses are probably where we should be pointing the finger. Many U.S. teens receive abstinence-only education, which focuses on teaching students to avoid sex rather than how to have safe sex. Research has found that this approach is not only ineffective, but it is counterproductive.
9.) Speaking of abstinence-only education, some of these programs encourage students to take abstinence pledges. Research has found that adolescents who make these pledges often break them and, further, that pledge-breakers are more likely contract STIs and to experience unplanned pregnancies.
10.) Despite the problems associated with abstinence-only education and the fact that it continues to be widespread in America, the U.S. teen birth rate recently hit a historic low. This drop has occurred in spite of the continued high prevalence of abstinence education. How can that be? As mentioned above, it’s partly because teens are less sexually active today than they were 30 years ago. However, it’s also because usage of highly effective contraceptives (like IUDs) among teens is increasing, as well as the fact that teens now have easier access to emergency contraception.
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