Teen Sex Takes A Break

For most teens, the Hookup Culture isn’t happening

by Gordon Campbell

The tendency for parents to live in denial about the sex lives of their children is obviously not a new thing. Even so there was something particularly poignant about a North Carolina State University study released a few months ago which found that….essentially, the parents interviewed believed their own children were not interested in sex and/or were slow to mature. Yet they regarded all other teenagers as being sexually voracious, and even predatory.

Very amusing. Yet are we on any firmer ground in assuming the opposite – that today’s teens are more sexually active than ever before, and are having more sex at ever younger ages in line with the promptings of a highly sexualized popular culture? Such perceptions seem to be just as prone to myth and prejudice, given that the morals of the wayward young have supposedly been going to hell in a handbasket for decades now, or even centuries.

There are concrete grounds for skepticism on this point. In June, the US Department of Health released a major study called “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008. Its main findings indicate that sexual activity among the young has flat-lined and in some important respects, may be in decline. Where sexual activity was pronounced, this seemed to be within a relatively narrow band of the population – a third or quarter at most, of the teenage population. The main findings below amount to 14 bullet points, but they’re worth reading together, since they paint a consistent picture. It is one that contradicts the view that the majority of teenagers are blindly following the dictates of an increasingly sexualized popular culture.

Among the results :

* In 2006-2008, the proportion of never-married females aged 15-19 who had ever had sexual intercourse was 42%. This was not a statistically significant change from 2002, when 46% of never-married teenaged females had ever had sexual intercourse. The percent sexually experienced has, however, declined steadily since 1988, when it was 51%.

* In 2006-2008, the percent of never-married males aged 15-19 who ever had sexual intercourse, 43%, did not change significantly from 2002. This follows a significant decline among males from 1995 (55%) to 2002 (46%).

* Both female and male teenagers whose mothers had their first birth as a teen, and those who did not live with both parents at age 14, were more likely to be sexually experienced than those whose mothers had their first birth at age 20 or older, and those who lived with both parents at age 14

* The vast majority of never-married teenagers had not had intercourse in the month before the interview – 76% of females and 79% of males, was unchanged from 2002. But 12% of female and 10% of male teens had had sex 4 or more times in the month before the interview.

*Teenagers’ most common first sexual partners are someone with whom they are “going steady” (72% of females and 56% of males) as opposed to someone in a less-involved relationship (e.g., going out once in a while). The second most common relationship with the first sexual partner is having just met, and this is more common for males than females (25% males and 14% females)

* Regarding total number of lifetime partners, 26% of females and 29% of males had had 2 or more partners. Teenaged females who were younger at first sex were much more likely to have had higher numbers of total partners No changes had occurred in number of partners since 2002, for males and females.

* The condom is the most commonly used method among sexually experienced teen females: 95% had used the condom at least once. The second most common method was withdrawal, with 58% having ever used this method, followed by the pill, at 55%. Use of periodic abstinence, or the calendar rhythm method, has increased since 2002. In 2006- 2008 17% of teens had ever used this method.

* Among never-married sexually experienced female teens, 79% used a contraceptive method at first intercourse, 68% used the condom, and 15% used the pill. There were no significant changes since 2002 in contraceptive use at first intercourse for female teens. Among never-married males, a significantly higher percent used the condom (81%) compared to 2002 (71%), but overall use of any method at first intercourse did not
change significantly.

* Among never-married female and male teens, there was no change since 2002 in the percent using a method of contraception at last intercourse in the 3 months before the interview. About 84% of females and 93% of males used contraception at last intercourse. Among never-married male teens, however, there was a significant increase since 2002 in the percent using a condom and a hormonal method at the same time. Fifteen percent used this combination.

* 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. Young females are also twice as likely to have a birth in their teen years if their mother had a birth when she was a teenager.

* In 2006-2008, among both female and male teens who had not yet had sex, the most common reason for not yet having done so was that it was “against religion or morals”, which was also the most common reason in 2002. The second and third most common reasons for females were “don’t want to get pregnant” and “haven’t found the right person yet.’

* Among males who had not yet had sex, the percentage who reported that the reason for not yet having had sex was “don’t want to get a female pregnant” dropped from 25% in 2002 to 12% in 2006-2008.

* The majority of teens — 64% of males and 71% of females — “agree” or “strongly agree” that “it is okay for an unmarried female to have a child”. Males’ agreement with this increased since 2002 (when it was 50%) while women’s agreement remained the same

* About 58% of never-married female and 47% of never-married male teens reported they would be “very upset” if they got pregnant (or got a partner pregnant). On the other hand, 14% of females and 18% of males would be “a little pleased” or “very pleased” if they got (a partner) pregnant. Thus, not all teens are motivated to avoid a pregnancy.

To summarise some of the main points of this : only 42% of unmarried girls under 20 had ever had sex, a decline from over half in 1988. Similar declines were evident among unmarried boys under 20, where those having had sexual experience dropped from well over half in 1995, to 43% in 2006-08. Three out of four teenagers had not had sex in the month prior to the survey, with that ratio rising to nearly 8 out of 10 boys in the same period. Of those having sex over three quarters of the girls and more than half the boys were in steady relationships. The numbers of serial sexual partners also declined significantly. Here, from US National Vital Statistics Reports, October 2009, is further data on the declining incidence of irresponsible sexual activity among the young – and a hat-tip to the Matthew Yglesias blog for this link and other insights for this story:

The teenage pregnancy rate dropped 40 percent from 1990 to
2005, reaching an historic low of 70.6 per 1,000 women aged 15–19
years. Rates fell much more for younger than for older teenagers.

Obviously, all of this is American data, which may be subject to attitudes and to peer pressures – both towards and away from sexual activity – that may not apply in New Zealand. Even so, the USA is supposedly the epicentre of that much lamented sexualized culture that is allegedly eroding the morals of the young. (Clearly, today’s teenagers are still putting up resistance to the inducements of the Hookup Culture.)

Historically speaking, the major shift in permissiveness about sex-before -marriage happened several decades ago. In 2002, researchers David Harding and Christopher Jencks pointed out in their survey ” Changing Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex” that the seismic change in sexual attitudes occurred during the 1970s :

The changes [since 1960] were quite large by conventional standards. In 1969, more than 75 percent of American adults with an opinion on premarital sex said it was wrong. By the 1980s only 33-37 percent of Americans said that premarital sex was either “always” or “almost always” wrong.

So, as Yglesias points out, if you want to blame popular culture for the alleged erosion of teenage sexual morality, the real culprit would appear to have been the hippie ‘ free love’ movement and its grisly 1970s suburban aftermath – think of the movie The Ice Storm – and not Britney or Miley’s mid-riff. The pioneer dissolutes seem to have been the parents of today’s teenagers or at least, some of them.

How has this process played out in New Zealand? As usual, social attitudes form and policy gets made here in something of an informational void. The best readily available information is from the Youth ’01 and Youth ’07 surveys carried out among secondary school students aged circa 13-18 years by the Adolescent Health Research Group at the University of Auckland.

The samples were large – there were 8,002 responses to the sexual health questions in the 07 study, or roughly 3 % of the entire New Zealand student population in the school years 9 to 14. “Sexually active’ was defined as having had sex in the previous three months, and “having had a sexual experience” was defined as ‘sexual intercourse, going all the way”- which might have been problematic given the somewhat grey area of oral sex, which in such studies do seem to follow the lead of President Bill Clinton, in not defining such activity as sex.

The pattern of sexual activity within and between the 01 and the 07 surveys are roughly in line with the American data. On average across the whole group, in the ‘01 survey 32.4 % of males and 30.4 % of females had experienced sexual intercourse, and roughly one fifth reported having had sex in the previous three months. As one would expect, within these averages the figures were higher for older students. The figures had not significantly increased by the time of the 07 survey. The conclusions in the 07 survey do not support the notion of sexual activity among teenagers being at markedly high levels, or being on the increase.

“The sexual health behaviour of students has not changed appreciably since 2001. The same proportion of students in 2001 and 2007 reported ever having had sexual intercourse ( approximately one third) and the proportion of students who report always using contraception and who used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse had remained unchanged from 2001 to 2007. Similarly,the proportions reporting different sexual ori3entaiuons have not changed between 2001 and 2007.” [ About 4% of students reported being attracted to the same sex/both sexes category, with the majority of the 4% being attracted to both. A further 3.6% in 2007, re[ported being attracted to neither or unsure. ]

Certainly, one can unpick the averages to find behaviours that could cause alarm in some quarters. Roughly one third of 15 year olds have had an experience of sex, and between one fifth of 15 year old boys and one quarter of 15 year of girls reported having had sex in the previous three months. Yet even so, these minorities do not confirm any thesis of a generation running wild.

Leaving aside the written self reporting of sexual behaviour, which is always reliant on the accuracy of the information being volunteered, another way of estimating teenage sexual activity is to look at the actual pregnancy, birth and abortion outcomes. Here again, the US data reveal a situation where such outcomes are on the decline, not the increase. The graph (left) is taken from the US National Vital Statistics Reports, October 2009 figures for teens aged 15-17 years of age.

The comparable figures for New Zealand do not show the same steep declines – but they do show a virtual flat-lining in induced abortion rates over the past decade for teenage females. Having reached a rate of 23.1 per 1,000 females in the 15-19 age group, and inching up to 25.6 in 2002, the figure has plateau’d ever since, reaching 26.0 in 2008 before slightly declining last year to 24.5, which was the level reached in 2005.

What about the tabloid media’s beloved ‘babies are having babies’ situation? In line with the general declines in the birth rate and with the movement upwards of the age at first birth, the fertility rates in New Zealand show a decline in the 15-19 age group as well. Either fewer teenage ‘babies’ are having babies, or the same ‘at risk’ category who were having the babies back then are having fewer babies now. Taking the long picture, the fertility rates for 15-19 year olds per 1,000 females in that age group has dropped from 49.81 in 1976 to a rock bottom of 25.55 in 2002 before bouncing back up to 32.85 in 2008, and reducing again to 29.39 last year. Again, compared to how fertility outcomes were unfolding on the heels of the Woodstock era in the 1970s, New Zealand teens are relatively speaking having far fewer babies than was the case during their parents’ teenage years.

One last symptom : by adding the abortion rates and the fertility rates ( and not counting miscarriages) together, we get an estimated pregnancy rate for those in the 15-19 age group. Again, there is no evidence of an overall rise in teen pregnancy. In 1990 the figure was 50 per 1,000 which is where it has stayed roughly been ever since. True, there was a blip in 2007 and 2008 when the figure rose to 57 and 58 before falling back last year to 53,89 per 1,000 which is almost identical to the 53.09 figure reached in 1995. Again, no evidence that the increasingly sexualized culture is leading to an explosion of pregnancy among today’s teens.

None of the above should be taken as an argument that we need not worry about the behaviours of the minority at risk. Binge drinking among a minority of teens (and a reported rise in binge drinking among young females) and the rates of sexually transmitted disease are cause for concern. In a follow up article next month, Werewolf will be reporting on chlamydia and the measures being taken to ensure testing and treatment.

However, it should be stressed that none of the risk-enhancing behaviours – from binge drinking to unprotected sex – are peculiarly or even predominantly, the province of teenagers. As marriages break down and people re-enter the singles scene, some at-risk behaviours and STD infections are emerging as problems among the 35-49 age group. Also, there is some evidence that teenage girls are no more reckless than older women for instance, when it comes to contraception – as this 2007 BBC report from Scotland indicates:

The perception that teenage girls with unwanted pregnancies have been less careful about contraception than older women has been dismissed by a study. Doctors at a Glasgow hospital analysed the birth control attempted by nearly 1,000 women requesting abortions. They found the proportion of older women who had used no contraception at all was roughly similar to the percentage of teenagers.

The UK has some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, and the government has placed a high priority on bringing the figure down using extensive information campaigns on contraception and safe sex. However, the new evidence suggests that the difference in attitudes to contraception in older women may not be as different as assumed.

Clearly, the first step in devising and funding programmes that will reach and assist the teenage minority who are actually engaged in risky sexual behaviours may be to dial back the rhetoric, and the prurience levels. As mentioned in an earlier article on Scoop, the fear and resentment of the young – some call it ‘paedophobia’ – is a widespread condition :

New Zealand loves young people when they’re dead and glorified at Gallipoli, but it hates them in cars, or in bars.

At time of writing, we have yet to see how the changes in liquor laws will pan out, but there are disturbing signs that this could take the form of social curfews and prescribed closing times for bars. Politicians can get away with this kind of tokenism – while refusing to raise the tax on alcohol or seeking to foster more intelligent drinking habits in society as a whole – because of the widespread negative perceptions of the young, which include the myths about their alleged sexual immorality.

The reality is that while society peddles that image and glamourises it for profit and titillation, the vast majority of teenagers do not comply with the stereotype. Some of those who have had sexual experience have done so through being victimized by adults, including family members. Sure, there will always be a minority who are more sexually adventurous and/or reckless – with all of the rewards and much of the pain that goes with that – but the majority of teenagers behave much the same or better, than their parents did. As a society, perhaps it is time we gave them credit for it.