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Survey Finds First Decline in Teenage Sex in 20 Years

Health: Government also finds a steep increase in use of contraceptives by girls. Shalala hails findings, calls for bigger push against premarital intercourse.

May 02, 1997|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than 20 years, there is evidence that the rising wave of premarital sexual intercourse among America's teenagers finally may have crested and begun to subside.

New survey data released by the government Thursday show a decline in the percentage of unmarried teenagers of both sexes who acknowledged having had intercourse at some point between the ages of 15 and 19. These were the first declines ever recorded since the collection of such data began in the 1970s.

A large-scale study conducted in 1995 by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 50% of females 15 to 19 years old--married and unmarried--reported having had intercourse at least once, down from 55% in 1990. Fewer than 10% of those surveyed had been married. A parallel survey conducted for the government by the Urban Institute in 1995 showed a similar change among never-married male teenagers: 55% of males between 15 and 19 years of age said that they had had intercourse at some point, down from 60% in 1988.

"We welcome the news that the long-term increase in teenage sexual activity may finally have stopped," Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said in announcing the new data during a speech in Los Angeles on Thursday. "Continual increases in teen sexual activity are not inevitable."

Shalala and others called for a redoubling of efforts to reduce teen sexual activity, including a stronger message from adult society that teen sex is not acceptable. "We need to change the cultural messages that have been accepted too long," Shalala said.

The magnitude of the rise in teen sexual activity is reflected in the fact that in 1970, the year the health statistics center began its periodic surveys, only 29% of all females 15 to 19 reported having ever had sex.

"It was going up, and it didn't just plateau, it dropped. And that's good," said Kristin Moore, executive director of Child Trends Inc., a Washington-based research organization. "It changes the number of adolescents at risk by hundreds of thousands" for sexually transmitted diseases and for teen pregnancy.

"The longer kids delay, the better," she said.

The survey also showed a steep increase in the use of contraceptive devices--particularly condoms--by teenage girls during first-time intercourse. Fifteen years ago, the survey found, half of all female teenagers used some form of contraception the first time they had sex. In the 1990s, fully three-quarters reported doing so.

The number of female teenagers reporting that they had received formal training in using birth control, avoiding HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and resisting pressure to have sex rose sharply as well.

Specialists attributed the decline in teen sex to a variety of factors, including fear of AIDS, more widespread sex education and changes in society's moral values.

One of those who linked changes in teen sexual activity to more emphatic moral standards in U.S. society was William Galston, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and board member of the National Campaign Against Teen Pregnancy. "There has been an important cultural shift in the last 10 years, relegitimizing the possibility of some moral judgments," he said.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy seeks to cut teen pregnancy rates by one-third by 2005 by supporting stronger messages on values and a broad array of community-based anti-pregnancy programs.

Gracie Hsu, a health policy analyst at the Family Research Center, attributed the changes primarily to what she said are more conservative values among today's teenagers, who have seen the consequences--from heartache to sexually transmitted diseases--of early sex.

"It's important to recognize that this isn't happening in a vacuum," she said. "It isn't happening just because of sex education."

But sex education has played a significant role. In 1995, more than 95% of 18- and 19-year-old females said that they had received formal instruction in practicing safe sex, avoiding HIV infection and other aspects of sexual behavior. Fewer than two-thirds of females who went through school only a few years earlier had received such training.

"The likely response to those kinds of education would be to postpone sex and use condoms, and that's exactly what we found," health statistics center statistician William Mosher said. "Obviously there were a lot of other things going on in the society, but this is one we can measure."

In a related development, the Alan Guttmacher Institute released new data Thursday showing that California led all states in teenage pregnancy, with 159 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19. North Dakota was lowest with 59 per 1,000. Almost 8 of 10 teen pregnancies now occur outside marriage, the institute said.

The Guttmacher Institute, a private research organization, said that nationwide there are 112 pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers each year. Of these, 61 end in births, 36 in abortions and 15 in miscarriages.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Surprise Drop

After decades of steady increases, the percentage of teen girls (15-19) who reported having sex has declined for the first time since such statistics were recorded.

'70: 29%

'95: 50%

****

The decline was noted in both key age groups.

*--*

15-17 17-19 1982 32% 64% 1988 38% 74% 1990 41% 74% 1995 38% 70%

*--*

Source: National Center for Health Statistics

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