Diana Zuckerman, PhD
It looks like good news, but what does the steady decline in the nation’s teen birth rate really mean? According to a new report from Child Trends, it really is good news: since the early 1990’s teens have been less likely to have sex and more likely to use contraceptives when having sex for the first time.
The report is based on several large, federally-funded national studies. In 1995, half of all high school girls reported ever having sex, compared to 53 percent in 1988. The decrease for boys (interesting, but not necessarily related to teen birth rates) was from 60 percent to 55 percent. The major news here is not the small decrease, but the fact that the percentages did not increase, as they generally did in the 1980’s.
The trends were in the opposite direction for Hispanic girls, however. While white and black teens showed decreases in ever having sex between 1988 and 1995, Hispanic females reported increases from 49 percent to 55 percent. In 1995, black teens were the most likely to be sexually experienced (60 percent), followed by Hispanic teens (55 percent) and white teens (50 percent).
Even teens who were sexually experienced were not necessarily sexually active. In 1997 only 37 percent of teenage girls and 33 percent of teenage boys reported having sex in the last three months. Surprisingly, the percentage of high school boys who were sexually active had steadily declined from 43 percent in 1990, but the percentages for girls increased from 1990-95 and then declined back to the 1990 level in 1997.
Sexual experience dramatically increases during the high school years. In 1995, approximately one in four 15-year-olds reported that they had sex at least once (27 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls), and by age 17 this more than doubled to 59 percent of males and 52 percent of females.
The decrease in teen births is probably mostly due to increase in contraceptive use for teens having sex for the first time. In 1982, only 48 percent of girls ages 15-19 used contraception the first time they had sex, but by 1995, that increased to 76 percent. The use of contraceptives for the first sexual intercourse increased among girls in all racial/ethnic groups, although Hispanic girls were least likely (only 58 percent), compared to blacks (68 percent) and whites (82 percent).
The increased in condom use among teens having sex for the first time was the reason. The percentage of teen girls using condoms when they had sex for the first time almost tripled, from 23 percent in 1982 to 63 percent in 1995. (In contrast, the percentage of teens using condoms the most recent time they had sex remained constant, at slightly higher than one of every four teens.) The number of girls using birth control pills when they had sex for the first time remained low, ranging from 3 percent for Hispanic girls, 8 percent of white girls, and 15 percent of black girls in 1995. Fortunately, the percentage of girls using withdrawal as a contraceptive method decreased from 13 percent in 1982 to only 4 percent in 1995. Long-term contraceptives such as Norplant and Depo Provera are used by less than 1 percent of girls having sex for the first time.
There is bad news about contraceptive use generally, however. Teens are becoming increasingly careless about contraceptive use; the likelihood that teens used contraceptives when they most recently had sex declined, from 77 percent in 1988 to 69 percent in 1995. Use of contraceptives among black teens remained high, but use by Hispanic teens decreased from 69 percent to 53 percent, and white teens decreased from 80 percent to 71 percent.
Decreasing fear of HIV/AIDS may be the reason. However, this decline is probably also related to a decrease in the use of birth control pills, from 42 percent to 23 percent for the most recent sexual intercourse. The use of long term contraceptives, which have only been available since the early 1990, made up for less than half of the decline in the use of the pill.
Trends in Sexual Activity and Contraceptive use Among Teens
Elizabeth Terry, MPP and Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D.
Child Trends Research Brief