This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released another report in its series on Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth. Like the previous reports, this one is based on analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) 2006‒2010 which asked over 22,000 men and women ages 15 to 44 about their sexual behavior. The sample included 4,662 teenagers. The NSFG provides a snapshot of current behavior as well as an opportunity to compare behavior over time as it is conducted regularly. Once again, this survey suggests that when it comes to sexual behaviors teens are, for the most part, very responsible. And while that seems to surprise a lot of adults, I’d like to point out that I’ve said this many, many times.
The most impressive news involves contraception. Specifically, the study found that 78 percent of never-married, sexually active females ages 15 to 19 and 85 percent of never-married, sexually active males ages 15 to 19 used contraception the first time they had sex. In addition, 86 percent of never-married, sexually active females and 93 percent of never-married, sexually active males ages 15 to 19 used a method of contraception the last time they had sex in the three months prior to the survey. Condoms remain the most popular method with 68 percent of all never-married, sexually active teens reporting using this method at first sex and 75 percent of never-married, sexually active teen males reporting having used a condom at last sex.
Teen contraception use is mainly unchanged from past surveys. While the authors note that fewer females seem to be using the pill they say this is made up for by those who are using newer hormonal methods such as injectables, the patch, or the ring. One place where a change was noted was in the percentage of males who reported using a condom the first time they had sex. In fact, 80 percent of never-married, sexually active young men reported using condoms their first time which is up a full 9 percentage points from 2002. We know from other research that teens who use contraception the first time are more likely to use it going forward so this data has implication past just that one night (or afternoon as the case may be). And, given that condoms are the only method of contraception that also protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) this good news has additional benefits as well.
The increase in condom use among boys made the headlines and seemed to shock some. Bill Alpert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy said: “It comes as a general surprise to people that teenagers in general and teen boys in particular can behave responsibly when it comes to making decisions about sex…I think it is surprising.” I take it not as a surprise but as proof that we’ve been underestimating young people and young men in particular, for years. Not only can they behave responsibly, they are doing so and they’ve been doing so for many years; remember 93 percent of sexually active teen males used contraception at last intercourse and this was unchanged from prior surveys. Sure this is not the 100 percent we would love to see but it is a very good starting place. Guys have been behaving responsibly for a long time but we unfairly continue to look at them and portray them has horny, sex-addled, and not dependable. It’s our turn to change our behavior.
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In other news, there is no other news. Very little else changed. The researchers noted that between 1988 and 2002 there were significant improvements in those behaviors that can lead to unplanned pregnancies and STDs. Specifically, in those years there was an overall decline in the number of teens who became sexually active and an increase in those who used contraception when they did. In recent years, however, these numbers have leveled off. This suggests that there is still work to be done in educating teenagers about sexual behavior, STDs, unplanned pregnancy, and the importance of protection.
As always, though, I think we have to start by giving them credit for what they are already doing right.