While parents may like to think their teens are not sexually active, statistics show that this is often not the case with nearly half of all teens being sexually active. Sex is something both teens and parents need to be prepared to deal with.
Teen Sexual Activity Statistics
The Centers for Disease Control regularly surveys teens about their sexual behaviors. A 2011 sexual behaviors survey showed the following:
- More than 47 percent of teens surveyed had engaged in sexual intercourse at some point in their lives.
- One third of teens surveyed had engaged in sexual intercourse within the past three months.
- Over 15 percent of teens had engaged in sexual intercourse with more than four partners.
- Nearly 40 percent did not use a condom during their most recent sexual activity.
- Over three-fourths of teens surveyed did not use some form of hormonal birth control (the pill, Depo Provera) to prevent pregnancy the last time they engaged in sexual activity.
- Young people aged 15 to 24 years account for about half of the 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases reported each year.
- In 2009, over 40,000 teen girls between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth.
Dating and Sex
While abstinence is the optimal way to avoid problems such as pregnancy, STDs, and the emotional issues that come with having sex. Raging hormones, peer pressure, and the desire to grow up often make it difficult for young people to see dating and teen sex as two separate topics.
Dating is supposed to be a time to get to know one another, as you've probably already experienced a physical attraction. Dating is the time to learn about the person inside, to discuss likes and dislikes, goals and aspirations. It is about looking into each other's eyes and holding hands.
Sex is about a biological reaction that urges you to act on impulse; but acting on impulse can have some unsavory results, especially if you do not know the person you are with very well, or don't take proper precautions. Sex can be a life-altering event; and since the first time only happens once, it is wise to take the time to make sure the experience is what you really want.
Consider some of these issues before acting on sexual impulses:
- Pregnancy prevention
- Legal implications of having sex with someone under the age of legal consent
- STD prevention
- Emotional maturity
- Relationship stability
- Personal and family morals
Remember also that no form of birth control, other than abstinence, comes with a 100 percent guarantee against pregnancy. If you or your girlfriend gets pregnant, are you ready to deal with the consequences?
Sexual Activity Defined
Many teens adhere to the belief that the only true sex is sexual intercourse. In fact, teens may engage in multiple types of sexual activity, including:
- Oral sex
- Masturbation or mutual masturbation
- Anal sex
- Frottage ("dry humping")
- Sensual massage
- Sexting or phone sex
Risky Sexual Behaviors
Some sexual behaviors come with higher physical, mental, and emotional risks than others. Risky behaviors may increase the rates of negative outcomes such as HIV, STDs, or unwanted pregnancy. The International Association of Fire Fighters identifies several risky sexual behaviors.
- Sex (oral, vaginal, or anal) without a condom
- Changing partners frequently
- Sex with more than one partner
- Inconsistent birth control use
- Use of unreliable types of birth control
AIDS.gov lists several behaviors that can reduce the risk of STDs and AIDS. These behaviors can also reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy:
- Engage in monogamy
- If you are sexually active, engage in regular STD and HIV testing.
- Talk to your partner about his or her HIV and STD status before you have sex.
- Always use a condom when engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
- Learn how to use a condom correctly.
Factors that Influence Teen Sexual Decision-Making
Many factors may affect a teen's choice to engage in sexual behaviors. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) identifies multiple factors that may influence teens.
During the teen years, peers play a large role in decision making.
- A 2005 study from the American Psychological Association showed that peer effects on decision making were stronger in adolescence than adults.
- A 2003 report from the Kaiser Foundation showed that about one-third of boys and one-fourth of girls feel pressured by peers to engage in sexual activity.
- The NASW noted that about 63 percent of teens were most likely to seek sexual information from their peers.
Parents can also have a strong effect on teen's attitudes about sex.
- A 2000 report in the Journal of Adolescent Research showed that parental communication about sex and birth control moderated behavior based on peer norms. In other words, parents discussing sex and birth control with their children minimized peer pressure that teens feel to engage in sex.
- The NASW noted that about 43 percent of teens wish they could get more sexual information from their parents. Around 32 percent of teens cited their parents as their main source of sexual information.
Children are inundated with sexual images in the media from a very young age. Media portrayals of sex and sexuality can have a significant influence on adolescent sexual decision making.
- A 2003 article in Pediatric Children's Health noted teens are at a particularly vulnerable age because they are developing sexual attitudes and values. Therefore, media bombardment of sexual images may strongly affect a teen's decision-making process.
- A 1991 study done by the University of North Carolina suggested that viewing television with sexual content lead to sexual activity in teens.
- NASW notes that 56 percent of television shows contain sexual content. About 25 percent of teens who use the Internet have been exposed unintentionally to sexual content.
- A 2009 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics linked sexual content on television to teen pregnancy rates.
Other Factors Influencing Teens
Many other factors may affect the decisions teens make about sex, as well. Some of these factors are within the control of parents and teens, while others are not.
Alcohol and Drug Usage
Alcohol and drug use can have a strong, in-the-moment affect on decision making because of lowered inhibitions.
- Planned Parenthood notes that alcohol and drug usage lowers inhibitions, which has a significant impact on the decisions teens make about having sex. Alcohol and drug use also increases the risks of sexual assault, unintended pregnancy, and STDs.
- A 2013 study from the Burnet Institute showed that a number of teens regret having sex after drinking.
- A 2004 from USA Today linked teen sex, alcohol use, and marijuana use.
Sexting is a very common activity among teens and young adults.
- A 2012 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine showed that about 25 percent of teens admit to engaging in sexting. The same study also linked sexting to an increase in sexual behaviors among teens.
- A 2013 study from the Department of Psychology at the Virginia Commonwealth University showed a strong correlation between teen sexting and other high-risk sexual behaviors.
Age of Partners
A 2002 study from the Guttmacher Institute found that teen girls with an older partner were more likely to engage in early sexual activity than girls with partners who were the same age as them. In this study, the age difference with the highest risk was six years or more. However, even a three year age difference between partners increased early sexual activity.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy notes many other factors that may contribute to teen sexual decision-making, including:
- Socioeconomic status
- Family structure
- Motivation to avoid pregnancy and STDs, such as future plans and goals
- Religious affiliation
Many parents and educators believe that the best way to prevent teen sex and the consequences that may arise as a result of sexual activity is to offer a school or faith-based, abstinence-only program. These programs teach students about abstaining from sexual intercourse until marriage as the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STD). They do not, however, provide information about birth control methods and STD prevention for teens who choose to become sexually active anyway. Federal funding is available for schools pursuing abstinence-only education as an alternative to comprehensive sexual and reproductive education.
Why Teach Abstinence-Only?
Some parents, religious leaders, and educators feel abstinence-only programs are far superior to methods of sex education that teach about birth control and sexual responsibility. According to the Heritage Foundation, abstinence-only programs are important for the following reasons:
- Sex before marriage may have emotional and physical costs that teens are mentally and emotionally incapable of facing. Some of these consequences include teen pregnancy, single motherhood, increased poverty, and decreased marital stability.
- Sex education focusing on birth control and teaching about sexual activity encourages teens to have sex before marriage.
- Abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs 100 percent of the time.
- Sexually active teens have higher rates of suicide and depression.
Do Abstinence-Only Programs Work?
The efficacy of abstinence-only programs is hotly debated. Often, it is difficult to sort out the facts. Social scientists have studied the issue in depth, and many youth health organizations have weighed in on the topic.
- A 2008 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that adolescents receiving a comprehensive sexual education had lower risk of STDs and pregnancy than those receiving abstinence-only education.
- The Society for Adolescent Medicine holds the position that abstinence-only education is flawed both scientifically and ethically.
- A 2006 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health in the Journal of Adolescent Health examines American policies and programs pertaining to abstinence-only education. The authors conclude abstinence-only programs may be harmful because they use misinformation and the withholding of important health information to reach their objectives.
- A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association of Pediatrics concluded that abstinence-only education may play an important role in preventing or delaying teen sex.
- A 2011 University of Georgia Research Foundation research article states data shows abstinence-only education doesn't prevent teen pregnancy and may actually contribute to higher rates.
- Advocates for Youth cites the results of several studies that show a comprehensive sexual education program with an abstinence component provide the best results for delaying sexual activities in adolescents.
Tips for Teens
Sex is a loaded topic for teens. Your mind may tell you one thing while your body is suggesting something else. Deciding when to have sex is a highly personal choice. How will you know when you're ready? What does sex within a relationship imply? These are just a few of the many questions you may be asking as you consider entering a sexual relationship.
Find Someone to Talk To
Find an adult (such as a parent or relative) whom you can trust, and engage in an open and honest conversation about sex. While it may feel embarrassing to ask questions and openly discuss sex, an adult can help you sort through the feelings and thoughts you are having.
Sex may have unintended consequences, such as pregnancy, HIV or STDs. The more you know about safe sex, the better you will be. Take the time to learn about preventing pregnancy, HIV and STDs before you engage in sex.
Talk to Your Partner
Before you decide to engage in sexual activity, make sure you have a partner you trust. Discuss important topics, such as beliefs about sex and contraception, before you engage in sexual activity.
Don't Be Afraid to Say No
It's easy to get talked into doing something you don't want to do. It is always okay to say no if you are uncomfortable for any reason. A partner who truly cares about you will understand and won't push you to do anything you don't want to do. Likewise, if your partner tells you no, accept it without pushing further. Pushing a partner to engage in sexual activity that he or she is uncomfortable with is morally wrong, and in some cases it is illegal.
Think for Yourself
Even if it seems everyone else is doing it, that doesn't mean you have to if you don't want to. It doesn't matter what you see on television or what your friends say they are doing. What matters is you follow your own values.
Take Drugs and Alcohol Out of the Picture
Drugs and alcohol affect your judgment. When you drink or do drugs, you are less likely to make well thought-out decisions. Avoid drugs and alcohol. If someone else is impaired by drugs or alcohol, wait until he or she is sober before allowing them to make sexual decisions.
Take Your Time
You have the rest of your life to engage in sexual activity. Take the time to get to know your partner well, and think through potential consequences before you engage in sexual activity.
Be Clear About Your Motivations
Why do you want to have sex right now? Are you in love? Is it because everyone else is doing it? Is your partner pressuring you? Do you feel like you will lose your partner if you don't have sex with him or her? Before making a decision about sexual activity, think about why you are making this decision so you can be sure it is the right one for you.
Learn the Laws
The age of consent varies by state, so it is important to learn whether you can legally engage in sexual activity. Likewise, different states have varying laws about age differences between partners. You need to know these before having sex.
Tips for Parents
While talking to teens about sex may feel uncomfortable, parents do have an influence on their children's decisions. You can help your teen develop healthy attitudes and make wise decisions about sex. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recommends the following:
- Clearly communicate your sexual values.
- Begin the conversation with your children about sex when they are young. You can communicate in an age-appropriate manner.
- Monitor your children's and teen's media usage. Discuss sexual content in the media with them.
- Help your children set future educational and career goals and communicate how early sexual activity will affect these goals.
- Try not to allow your daughter to date a partner who is more than three years older than she is.
- Discourage having a steady boyfriend/girlfriend and frequent dating.
- Encourage group dates.
- Take an active role in your child's life. Get to know their friends and dates, as well as monitoring their activities.
Likewise, parents may also wish to consider the following:
- Familiarize yourself with your teen's school sexual education curriculum.
- Don't rely on the school as a sole source of your child's sexual education.
- Don't rely on others to teach your teens your sexual value system.
- Have an open door policy. Let your teen know you there to discuss sexual questions with him or her openly and honestly, and encourage them to ask you questions. Try to reserve judgment when providing answers, so your teen will continue to feel comfortable talking to you about sex.
- Maintain a close relationship with your children.
- Educate your teens about the mental, emotional, and physical consequences of unprotected sex.
- Talk to both boys and girls about sexual assault. Teach boys that no means no, and teach girls how to communicate clearly.
It's Your Future
Sex is a healthy and natural part of life. Just as with dating and adult sex, teen sex can sometimes come at a price that affects the rest of your life. Before you enter into a sexual relationship, take the time to educate yourself on the implications, proper protection, and what truly constitutes a healthy relationship.