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Decline in teen sex levels off, data show

WASHINGTON – The nation’s campaign to get more teenagers to delay sex and use condoms is faltering, threatening to undermine the highly successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy and protect young people from sexually transmitted diseases, federal officials reported Wednesday.

New data from a large government survey shows that by every measure, the decade-long decline in sexual activity among high school students leveled off between 2001 and 2007 and the increase in condom use by teens flattened out in 2003.

Moreover, the survey found disturbing hints that teen sexual activity may have begun creeping up and that condom use among high school students might be edging down, though those trend lines have not yet reached a point where statisticians can be sure, officials said.

“The bottom line is in all these areas we don’t seem to be making the progress we were making before,” said Howell Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which conducts the survey. “It’s very troubling.”

Coming on the heels of reports that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease and that the teen birth rate has increased for the first time in 15 years, the data is triggering alarm across the ideological spectrum.

“We have a number of signs that are all going exactly in the wrong direction,” said Sarah S. Brown, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “All of us in this field are on red alert.”

The new report did not examine the reason for the trends, but experts said there could be many causes, including rising complacency about AIDS, changing attitudes about sex and pregnancy, shifts in ethnic diversity and the possibility that there will always be some teens who cannot be convinced to wait.

“The truth is that as a field we really don’t know what the answer is,” Brown said.

But the new figures renewed the heated debate about sex education classes that focus on abstinence until marriage, which began receiving federal funding during the period covered by the latest survey and have come under increasing criticism that they are ineffective.

“Since we’ve started pushing abstinence, we have seen no change in the numbers on sexual activity,” said John Santelli, chairman of the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University. “The other piece of it is abstinence education spends a good amount of time bashing condoms. So it’s not surprising, if that’s the message young people are getting, that we’re seeing condom use start to decrease.”

Proponents of abstinence programs dismissed the criticism, blaming “comprehensive” sex education that emphasizes contraceptive use.

The report comes as Congress is debating whether to reauthorize another $50 million in federal funding for sex education programs on top of the $126 million that already has been approved for this year.

Others blamed the onslaught of movies, books, advertising and cultural messages that glamorize sex.

“It’s highly ironic this comes out right after the launch of the biggest movie of the season, which is ‘Sex in the City.’ The No. 1 movie that all teenage girls want to see right now is ‘Sex in the City,’ ” said Charmaine Yoest, of the Family Research Council.

The proportion of teenagers reporting having sexual intercourse rose steadily through the 1970s and 1980s, fueling a sharp rise in teen pregnancy. The trend reversed around 1991 because of AIDS, changing mores about sex and other factors. At the same time, more sexually active teens started using condoms and other forms of contraception. Together, the trends have pushed the U.S. teen pregnancy rate to historic lows.

The first sign that trend might be reversing came last summer, when the CDC conducted an analysis for the Washington Post of data collected in 2005 by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a nationally representative survey the CDC conducts every two years to track a variety of risky behavior, including sexual activity. While the rates still remained far below the all-time highs, the analysis showed that the proportion of teens who said they had ever had sex or had had sex in the last three months had leveled off beginning in 2001. Researchers, however, were waiting for the next round of data to see if it represented a trend.

The new data come from the 2007 survey, which involved 14,103 students in grades 9 through 12 at 157 high schools nationwide. The survey found that the proportion of those who reported they had ever had sex, had begun having sex before age 13, had engaged in sex within the last three months and had sex with at least four partners all increased slightly between 2005 and 2007.

None of the increases were sufficient to convince statisticians that there is a real upward trend. But when the agency analyzed the numbers for the Post, statisticians found that every measure of sexual activity passed the statistical test for having leveled off between 2001 and 2007 and the condom use numbers passed the test for leveling off beginning in 2003.