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Are Teenagers Really Having Less Sex? And How to Continue This Trend

An article from Jonathan McKee at

About 10 days ago many of us cheered when we finally read some good news on the front page of the newspaper: “Teenagers Having Less Sex.”

Really? If that’s true, then we need to keep doing something right!

Isn’t that sad that we need to qualify that with “if that’s true.” Today, I often find an inherent skepticism as to whether we’re being told the truth. So that’s what I intend to do with this article—two tasks:

  1. Is this true? Are fewer teenagers having sex than in years prior?
  2. If so, why the change… and can we duplicate whatever we’ve been doing that is helping the situation?

Getting to the Truth Behind the Headlines
The headlines originated about 10 days ago with the release of the new Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) report revealing that “only” about 42% of American teenagers (ages 15-19) have had sex.

Is that good?

We have to look a little deeper than headlines for the answers to those questions. First of all, if 42% sounds lower than what you’ve been hearing, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. For example, if you look at just the unmarried 18-19 year-olds in the same NSFG study, that number rises to about 63%. That’s almost exactly on par with other studies, like the 2010 CDC study revealing 62.3% of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse (CDC, YRBSS 2010, page 20). So when you’re hearing people rattle off statistics, take note of exactly what group they are including. Are they talking about all teenagers, or are they using a qualifier like, “by the time a student graduates from high school, they…”

So how are we supposed to react when we hear these numbers? Is 42%… or 63% good?

How many were having sex last year?

How about a decade ago?

How about two decades ago?

The quick answer is… you have to look back about two decades for this report to be good news. In short, this NSFG report is telling us very little that we didn’t already know almost 10 years ago, back in 2002.

The Rest of the Story
The media loves to serve us hot-topic statistics. So when you see shocking headlines, just make sure that you’re reading the entire story. When the CDC announced this particular gift of good news, that headline arrived in a bounty of various colored packages:Less Sex, More Condoms for U.S. Teens

Less Than Half of Teens Have Had Sex

Study finds teens postponing sex, using birth control more

Abstaining Girls, Guys More Afraid of God, Less of STDsIt sounds like good news, eh? (to quote my Canadian brothas) But do we need to wait for Paul Harvey to get… the rest of the story? Here’s an idea. How about we just read the actual NSFG report from the CDC? That’s what I did last week. I sat in a comfortable chair with a highlighter and read all 35 pages.

You didn’t actually have to read that far to get to the truth of the report. I’m opening up the report to page 1 and reading the summary of the results. And I quote:

    “These levels of sexual experience have not changed significantly from 2002.”

What about teen contraception use? And I quote:

    “Teenager’s contraception use has changed little since 2002.”

I’m not picking anything out of context—it’s all through the report. So why are all the headlines talking about “more teens” having “less sex” as if it’s something new?

Since 2008
I’m all for good news, but is this glance back just a media “spin” of the facts? I mean let’s be honest. Does this report show anything different since 2008?

What, you might ask, happened in 2008?

  • In March of 2008 everyone freaked out when they picked up the paper with the headlines, 1 in 4 Teenager Girls has an STD.
  • In June of 2008, we began seeing reports of the “teen sex decline” leveling off, with representatives from the CDC as well as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy making comments like, “We have a number of signs that are all going exactly in the wrong direction.”

So what changed since 2008? Anything? Allow me to quote the first paragraph of the CDC’s “Results” summary on page 5 of the NSFG report:

    “Observed differences between 2002 and 2006-2010 in the percentage of sexually experienced females and males were not statistically significant.”

I’m not trying to be a whiner, and I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I just think that this little celebration is about 10 years after the fact. This party should have happened in 2002.

Is There Any Good News?
Simply put… yes.

This NSFG report goes on to tell us something that we already knew back in 2002, and that is that if you compare this data with the 1988 and 1995 data, you’ll see a significant decline in teenage sexual activity from 1988 to 2002.

This meshes pretty well with other existing studies. For example, the CDC does another study every two years called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), tracking the risky behaviors that teenagers engage in. On the CDC website, you can download a two page summary of these results looking at the changes from 1991 to 2009. Here’s a little chart I made displaying the drop in teenagers who have “ever had sexual intercourse” over this 18-year span:

As you can see, there was a significant drop from 1991 to 2001, but then a leveling or tiny spike until 2007 (perhaps part of why they were nervous in 2008?), followed by a 1.8 percent drop again in 2009. The statistically significant fact here is the 8% drop over the first 10 years. Since 2001, it’s actually .4% up (which is statistically insignificant, and seen as “level.”)

So celebrate, or to slightly misquote the musician Prince, “Party like it’s 2001.” Because that’s when the numbers leveled on this report.

Trust me, I’d LOVE to see a decline in sexual activity. I’m rooting for it more than anyone. I’d love this 8% decline almost as much as I’d love to be actually told accurate information; but I have two complaints about the way that this data is being presented by the media in the last 10 days:

  1. This decline is being presented as “new news,” and as if things have become better in the last decade, when in fact, they’ve changed very little. The NSFG report matches the YRBSS report almost exactly, except for one insignificant difference which I urged my readers to check out for themselves in my blog last Thursday.
  2. No one is addressing the increasing problem of STDs in this country. I wish the 2008 CDC report that “1 in 4 teen girls have an STD” ended at “1 in 4.” But reading the fine print in that study reveals even scarier numbers, such as “almost half of black teen girls” have at least one STD.

The Lack of Answers about the Rise in STDs
So here’s the million dollar question I have for the CDC: If less kids are having sex and more kids are using condoms… how come more kids have STD’s than ever reported before?

I contacted the CDC to ask that question and, to date, have still not received a reply.

I also called up the people over at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy to get their 2 cents on the subject. They called me back within one day.

Their answer to my question? “I don’t know.”

The conversation was a lot more interesting than that. Bill Albert, Chief Program Officer at National Campaign and I had a fun time discussing reasons why STD’s are up when sexual activity is down and use of sexual contraception is up? Albert commented that maybe our accuracy in reporting STDs has just improved and it appears as an increase.

Being an advocate of abstinence, I decided to also call up Pam Stenzel’s ministry. Pam has been teaching the truth about sex to teenagers for decades now. She would be one of my first choices to come and talk to teenagers in my city about abstinence. Pam was out of town this week, so I talked to the co-author of her numerous books, Melissa Nesdahl.

Melissa saw the recent headlines as good news, because she felt that the very kids whom this NSFG report are referencing will see the news as encouragement that they aren’t alone. Other Teenagers are waiting for sex as well. The majority, in fact.

On the other hand, Melissa was very discouraged with the way that media sources were reporting the rise in condom use as a good thing. “The safe sex message is a lie.” Melissa asserted. “The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infects 1 in 2 sexually active people, condom or not. Both HPV and Herpes are like that. They only require ‘skin to skin’ contact. A condom doesn’t cover the entire genitals. The wishful thinking that a condom will protect them from HPV or Herpes is misinformation, plain and simple. And both these STDs are viruses that people will carry for life. There is no cure.”

Melissa saw this report addressing two very different populations: those who are waiting, and those who aren’t. Those who are not waiting are taking a huge chance. She hopes that readers of this NSFG report will be able to differentiate between the two.

No one is disagreeing that STDs are a problem in this country, more than almost any other country. The question is… how to battle it?

Furthermore, as I brought up in the beginning of the article, what did we do right in the 90’s that caused an 8% drop in sexual activity among teenagers? Can we duplicate this behavior and see an even greater drop in the number of kids having sex?

So Why Are Less Teenagers Having Sex?
Plenty of people are speculating as to “why” less teenagers are having sex. Many are attributing it to “fear of the wrath of God.” Sound preposterous? The NSFG report actually cited that the top reason for both males and females between the age of 15 and 19 was that sexual intercourse was “against religion or morals.” (41% of females and 31% of males) The second and third reason for abstaining was “fear of getting pregnant” and “haven’t found the right person yet.”

STD’s wasn’t even in the top 3 reasons for abstaining. Hmmmmmm.

So why are more kids abstaining?

That’s what I asked Bill Albert at National Campaign. I asked him if he had any guesses why sexual activity was down in a world where media was growingly more sexual and porn was increasingly available and prevalent. (It’s something we all are probably wondering?)

Albert agreed, “I think we can all concur that media has grown more sexually explicit.”

“There’s a lot of studies that reveal that.” I added.

“Yes,” Albert went on. “And I think that there’s a lot of evidence showing that this media effects teenagers.”

I agreed with that as well.

“But the facts are, somehow less kids are having sex and more kids are using contraception,” Bill concluded.

As Bill and I talked about this mystery, we agreed that more adults are actually talking with their kids about sexual responsibility. Perhaps this growing number of conversations between adults and teenagers has helped over the last two decades.

I brought up the same theory with Melissa Nesdahl and she agreed. “Parents have to start these conversations while their kids are young or they’ll miss out on the block of life where they are the ‘go-to’ person for these kind of questions. This world is so full of sexual messages around every corner, parents have to talk about it. I’ve already had several conversations with my 4 and 6 year old, at their level, about these issues.”

Could this be why fewer kids are having sex than 20 years ago? Could “conversations” be the key?

Conversations the Cure
Some people would probably credit sex education, others would give credit to abstinence programs. Let’s be honest, it’s all speculation. We don’t really know why fewer kids are having sex. But as a father of three teenagers, a 20-year youth worker, and a guy who now not only hangs out with and speaks to teenagers for a living, but spends a couple hours a day researching youth culture, attitudes and trends… I think that this sexually explicit world is forcing adults to dialogue with their kids about sex more than ever before in America. Parents have to talk with their kids about this more because it’s on every isle, every channel and just one click away on every device. Parents today have to answer questions from their 5-year-olds that never would have been asked 20 years ago.

50 years ago our country was actually at a very unhealthy state of being when it came to “conversations.” Our puritan history had irresponsibly taught us that the answer was to just avoid the subject of sex. The first TV shows wouldn’t even show a married couple in bed together because it was “too risqué.” Sex was a “naughty thing,” and questions about it were stifled.

I can’t say I like the polar extreme, because that is where we’ve gone. Now we see sex everywhere, loaded with misinformation.

The good news of all of this is… parents and adults are talking about sex more. The number one reason kids are deciding not to do it is because of religion and/or morals. Perhaps kids are listening.

In Chapter 3 of my parenting book, Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, I cited three studies about parenting. All three were drastically different… but had one common denominator. Here’s a quick excerpt from that chapter:

    A month ago (as I write this), three parenting articles/reports came across my desk in one week. The first was from the American Academy of Pediatrics and titled “Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media.” This report recommends that parents do three things: recognize the effect of the media, exert control over their kids’ media choices, and remove TVs from their kids’ bedrooms. It encourages open conversation about media in conjunction with imposing these boundaries.15

    The second article I saw was from an author who contended just the opposite. She argued that kids will watch what they want anyway—sneaking or watching it at friends’ houses. So we might as well let them watch what they want but engage in regular conversations with them about it.

    The third report was from a woman named Amy Schalet in the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In her study, “Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover,” she compared U.S. parenting styles to those in the Netherlands. The differences in the countries’ birthrate percentages were astounding. In 2007, births to American teens (aged fifteen to nineteen) were eight times as high as in the Netherlands. Schalet contends that Dutch parents “normalize” adolescent sexuality—allowing their 16-year-old-daughters to have a boyfriend spend the night, in contrast to typical American parents, who “dramatize” adolescent sexuality. Schalet argues that the Dutch approach basically opens up the communication channels between parents and teenagers about sex and relationships (a rather extreme stance, I realize).16

    I probably read fifty to a hundred of these kinds of articles and studies annually. Most of the reports I read (especially medical journals/studies from The American Psychological Association, The Kaiser Foundation, The American Academy of Pediatrics, etc.) tend to err on the side of instilling parental boundaries (as opposed to the two latter reports that I just cited). That doesn’t mean I ignore the above reports—and it doesn’t mean I embrace all their findings. (For instance, the Bible is clear about whether you should consider having your teen daughter host her boyfriend for a sleepover!) But I do look for the kernels of truth or, better yet, common denominators between all the opinions expressed.

    Did you notice the common denominator in all three above opinions?

    Despite polar opposite parenting styles, all three authors agreed on one thing: Parents need to regularly engage in conversation with their kids. Phrases like, “Talk to your kids about this” and “address these issues!” keep surfacing.

    I’m writing this in an airport waiting for a plane. The TV is on next to me—everyone is watching a pro football game. Ironically, as I typed the last paragraph, a commercial came on that said, “Just talk with your kids about drug abuse. Your conversation could make a world of difference!”

    Are we listening?

    • (All of these reports and more are documented in Jonathan’s book, )

Are you listening?

Your conversations with your teenagers are making a world of difference. Keep talking about the truth.

Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee, president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of numerous books including the brand new Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the award winning book Do They Run When They See You Coming? He speaks and trains at camps, conferences, and events across North America, and provides free resources for youth workers internationally on his website,

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