WASHINGTON – American teenagers are waiting longer to engage in sexual intercourse and an overwhelming majority of those who are sexually active report using contraception, according to a comprehensive, well-respected government survey released Friday.
The report examining youth behavior found that more young men in particular have postponed sex – 46 percent were sexually active in 2002 compared to 55 percent in 1995 – and 91 percent of males who had sex in the previous three months used contraception.
For the first time since the government began its National Survey of Family Growth in 1973, more girls (47 percent) say they have had sex than boys (46 percent). Girls also report a high use of contraceptives (83 percent).
In many cases, researchers found, teens are using two types of contraception, such as the pill and a condom, in an effort to reduce the likelihood of pregnancy and a sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS.
“The news is almost all positive,” said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “This data clearly underscores teens are being a bit more cautious about sex. This is a real sea change.”
The data comes amid a ferocious debate over the value of abstinence-only education, an approach President Bush has backed with $170 million in federal funding next year. Friday, both supporters and detractors of abstinence-until-marriage programs claimed the report validated their sharply differing views. More-neutral academics said the positive trends most likely reflected a combination of abstinence education and instruction on safer sex that have resulted in the notable decline in risky sexual behavior.
“They are both having an impact,” said Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR Associates, which focuses on health policy. “In today’s polarized world, the very important message is that this (data) is not just abstinence-only or contraception.”
In preparing its analysis, the National Center for Health Statistics interviewed nearly 3,000 teenagers in one-on-one conversations in the home. Researchers praise the periodic survey as one of the most authoritative sources on adolescents, in part because it reaches teens in and out of school and measures not only attitudes but specific behaviors.
With the exception of 18- and 19-year-old girls, teens of both genders showed significant declines in early sexual activity. Older girls and black females were the only groups that did not show a drop in sexual activity. At the same time, nearly 10 percent of young women described their first sexual encounter as “non-voluntary.”
Hispanic teenagers were the least likely to use contraceptives, and 24 percent of Hispanic girls were likely to give birth before age 20, compared to 8 percent of white teens.
Some of the most dramatic improvement has come in the area of teen pregnancy. In 1991, 62 of every 1,000 American females between 15 and 19 gave birth. A decade later, the teen birth rate fell to 43 per 1,000.
Even with such progress, U.S. teen birth rates remain among the highest in the developed world. In 2002, Canada’s teen birth rate was 20 per 1,000; in France it was 8 per 1,000.
There are many theories for the lower rates in other countries, Kirby said, including wider availability of medical services and health information, less societal division over sex education and a higher poverty rate among American youths.
“There is a strong relationship between poverty and early childbearing,” he said.
Given the growing number of young people using more than one type of contraceptive – as high as 30 percent in some groups – analysts said there is evidence to suggest teens are concerned about unwanted pregnancy and diseases spread through intercourse. Used correctly, condoms are highly effective at reducing the risk of AIDS, syphilis and gonorrhea.
“The messages have been toward protecting yourself against not only pregnancy but also STD transmission,” said Joyce Abma, lead author of the report. “There are many female methods that prevent against pregnancy, but not STDs. Finally, the messages are being picked up and acted upon.”
Every type of contraception, including the newer injectable methods and the high-dose “emergency” oral pill, was more widely used by teens in 2002 than before, the study found.
“The really good news is that kids are waiting. They are getting to maturity so they can make healthier choices,” said Joneen Krauth-Mackenzie, executive director of the Denver-based Abstinence and Relationship Training Center. “Kids are seeing the cause and effect; they know they need to do something to reduce the risk.”
The next step is to shift the focus from contraception to abstinence, she said. “When you engage in those kind of behaviors you reduce your risk but you don’t protect.”
The survey did raise questions about where young people get information on reproductive health. One-third of teens said they did not learn about contraception in school, and only half of young women and one-third of young men said they had discussed birth control with a parent before turning 18.
“It’s quite shocking how little information they’re getting from adults,” said Cynthia Dailard, senior public policy associate at the nonpartisan Alan Guttmacher Institute.