The news is troubling, but it’s also misleading. While some young people are clearly engaging in risky sexual behavior, a vast majority are not. The reality is that in many ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.In other words, the fact that teenagers are seemingly somewhat more comfortable discussing sex than their parents were doesn't necessarily mean that they're engaging in risky behaviors. Of course, proponents of comprehensive sex education have been arguing the same thing -- that being open and honest about sex isn't the same as having more of it -- for many years!
Today, fewer than half of all high school students have had sex: 47.8 percent as of 2007, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, down from 54.1 percent in 1991.
A less recent report suggests that teenagers are also waiting longer to have sex than they did in the past. A 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls had experienced sex, down from 38 percent in 1995. During the same period, the percentage of sexually experienced boys in that age group dropped to 31 percent from 43 percent.
The rates also went down among younger teenagers. In 1995, about 20 percent said they had had sex before age 15, but by 2002 those numbers had dropped to 13 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys.
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As for that supposed epidemic of oral sex, especially among younger teenagers: national statistics on the behavior have only recently been collected, and they are not as alarming as some reports would have you believe. About 16 percent of teenagers say they have had oral sex but haven’t yet had intercourse. Researchers say children’s more relaxed attitude about oral sex probably reflects a similar change among adults since the 1950s. In addition, some teenagers may view oral sex as “safer,” since unplanned pregnancy is not an issue.
It is, however, important to note that while promiscuity among teens is not a major problem, there are other sexual issues involving teens that need addressing. The fact that the teen birth rates have risen for the first time in 15 years, as well as the high rates of STD transmission, both need our immediate attention. And as the NY Times notes, if these trends are not due to increased rates of sexual activity, they're almost certainly due to a decrease in the use of condoms and other contraception. That's something important to chew on -- and to remember when abstinence-only supporters try to take credit for this study's findings.