Have American teenagers gone wild?
Parents have worried for generations about changing moral values and risky behavior among young people, and the latest news seems particularly worrisome.
It came from the National Center for Health Statistics, which reported this month that births to 15- to 19-year-olds had risen for the first time in more than a decade.
And that is not the only alarm being sounded. The talk show host Tyra Banks declared a teen sex crisis last fall after her show surveyed girls about sexual behavior. A few years ago, Oprah Winfrey warned parents of a teenage oral-sex epidemic.
The news is troubling, but it’s also misleading. While some young people are clearly engaging in risky sexual behavior, a vast majority are not. The reality is that in many ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.
Today, fewer than half of all high school students have had sex: 47.8 percent as of 2007, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, down from 54.1 percent in 1991.
A less recent report suggests that teenagers are also waiting longer to have sex than they did in the past. A 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls had experienced sex, down from 38 percent in 1995. During the same period, the percentage of sexually experienced boys in that age group dropped to 31 percent from 43 percent.
The rates also went down among younger teenagers. In 1995, about 20 percent said they had had sex before age 15, but by 2002 those numbers had dropped to 13 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys.
“There’s no doubt that the public perception is that things are getting worse, and that kids are having sex younger and are much wilder than they ever were,” said Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. “But when you look at the data, that’s not the case.”
One reason people misconstrue teenage sexual behavior is that the system of dating and relationships has changed significantly. In the first half of the 20th century, dating was planned and structured — and a date might or might not lead to a physical relationship. In recent decades, that pattern has largely been replaced by casual gatherings of teenagers.
In that setting, teenagers often say they “fool around,” and in a reversal of the old pattern, such an encounter may or may not lead to regular dating. The shift began around the late 1960s, said Dr. Bogle, who explored the trend in her book “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus” (N.Y.U. Press, 2008).
The latest rise in teenage pregnancy rates is cause for concern. But it very likely reflects changing patterns in contraceptive use rather than a major change in sexual behavior. The reality is that the rate of teenage childbearing has fallen steeply since the late 1950s. The declines aren’t explained by the increasing availability of abortions: teenage abortion rates have also dropped.
“There is a group of kids who engage in sexual behavior, but it’s not really significantly different than previous generations,” said Maria Kefalas, an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and co-author of “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage” (University of California Press, 2005). “This creeping up of teen pregnancy is not because so many more kids are having sex, but most likely because more kids aren’t using contraception.”
As for that supposed epidemic of oral sex, especially among younger teenagers: national statistics on the behavior have only recently been collected, and they are not as alarming as some reports would have you believe. About 16 percent of teenagers say they have had oral sex but haven’t yet had intercourse. Researchers say children’s more relaxed attitude about oral sex probably reflects a similar change among adults since the 1950s. In addition, some teenagers may view oral sex as “safer,” since unplanned pregnancy is not an issue.
Health researchers say parents who fret about teenage sex often fail to focus on the important lessons they can learn from the kids who aren’t having sex. Teenagers with more parental supervision, who come from two-parent households and who are doing well in school are more likely to delay sex until their late teens or beyond.
“For teens, sex requires time and lack of supervision,” Dr. Kefalas said. “What’s really important for us to pay attention to, as researchers and as parents, are the characteristics of the kids who become pregnant and those who get sexually transmitted diseases.
“This whole moral panic thing misses the point, because research suggests kids who don’t use contraception tend to be kids who are feeling lost and disconnected and not doing well.”
Although the data is clear, health researchers say it is often hard to convince adults that most teenagers have healthy attitudes about sex.
“I give presentations nationwide where I’m showing people that the virginity rate in college is higher than you think and the number of partners is lower than you think and hooking up more often than not does not mean intercourse,” Dr. Bogle said. “But so many people think we’re morally in trouble, in a downward spiral and teens are out of control. It’s very difficult to convince people otherwise.”
* By TARA PARKER-POPE (January 27, 2009,”The Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity”)