Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teenagers in the United States: 2011-2015

Questions for Joyce Abma, Ph.D., Social Scientist and Lead Author on “Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teenagers in the United States: 2011-2015

Q: Is the bottom line here in this study that teens are less sexually active than in the past?

JA: Yes. Although this has changed very gradually, fewer teens have ever had sex than was the case three decades ago. In the late 1980s, just over half of female teens and 61% of male teens had had sex, and the most recent data through 2015 show this percent is well under half: 42% for females and 44% for males.- So males have had a particularly large decrease in the percent who have ever had sex during the teen years.

Over the past 3 decades, since 1988, the percent of teens who had ever had sex has been declining gradually. (decreasing from over half – 51% for females and 60% for males, to under half – 42% for females and 44% for males in 2011-15). Since 2002, however, the decline slowed and there has been no significant change for female or male teens. And this plateau continued through the most recent time period, 2011-2015.


Q: Are the teens of today also more likely to use contraception than past generations?

JA: Yes. Although even about 3 decades ago, in the late 1980s, contraceptive use was common among teens – for example 84% of males used a method at last sex in 1988 – they have become increasingly more likely since then. In the most recent data, 2011-2015, 95% of males used a contraceptive method at last sex. Related to this increase among females is another big change across the time period: the development and availability of a wider variety of contraceptives for females. These include Depo-Provera injectable, implants, emergency contraception, the patch, and more recently, the IUD has been re-designed and recommended for teens. These newer hormonal methods are starting to be used more commonly, but use of the pill remains common as well among female teens.


Q: With such a sensitive topic, do you meet with a lot of resistance in trying to collect this data?

JA Actually, the response rate for the survey is 70%, meaning of the people eligible for the survey, 70% agree to participate and complete it. Generally, people recognize the importance, validity and value of the survey. Those who participate tend to find it an interesting and positive experience. And many topics are covered, including some questions about education, health services, attitudes and opinions, questions about children, and relationships.


Q: Do these findings include teens with same-sex partners?

JA: No, this report covers only sexual intercourse with opposite-sex partners. The purpose of the report is primarily to understand risk behaviors for pregnancy among teens, thus the focus is only on opposite sex sexual activity.


Q: Any other important points of note?

JA: There are several interesting findings in this report, both in terms of sexual activity as well as contraceptive use among teens. For example, teens who had not yet had sex – which is over half of all teens — were asked to identify the main reason they hadn’t yet had sex, from 5 possible reasons. Female and male teens were very similar in the reasons they chose. Female and male teens both chose “against religion or morals”, followed by “don’t want to get (a female) pregnant”, and “haven’t found the right person yet” as the most common reasons. So female and male teens seem to be thinking along the same lines when considering the issue of not being sexually active.

As for contraceptive use, recently the IUD and contraceptive implants have been re-designed and are recommended by reproductive health professionals for teens to reduce the chances of pregnancy. These methods, referred to as “LARC” – for “long-acting reversible contraception”– are important because they offer protection for multiple years, they don’t require regular action on the part of the teen, and their failure rates are extremely low. These methods are still relatively rarely used among teens but are being used more often: 6% of teens had ever used either of these two methods as of the 2011-15 data.

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