Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Family Planning Perspectives
Volume 33, Number 4, July/August 2001

Levels of Sexual Experience Among U.S. Teenagers Have Declined for the First Time in Three Decades

The proportion of never-married U.S. teenagers who have had intercourse at least once has fallen for the first time since data collection began in the early 1970s, declining from 56% to 52% between 1988 and 1995.1 According to analyses based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics, most of the decrease is attributable to a statistically significant drop among males (from 60% to 55%). Although the proportion of teenage females who were sexually experienced was virtually unchanged (51% vs. 49%), the proportion who had had sex before age 15 rose from 11% to 19%. Among females, contraceptive use at first intercourse rose from 67% in 1988 to 77% in 1995, but use at last intercourse declined from 80% to 71%; among males, use at first sex and at most recent sex remained stable.

The analyses are based on parallel, nationally representative samples of unmarried 15-19-year-old males and females. For females, the investigators used data from the National Survey of Family Growth (samples of 1,186 for 1988 and 1,344 for 1995). Information for males came from the National Survey of Adolescent Males (samples of 1,880 for 1988 and 1,710 for 1995). Both surveys collected data on levels of sexual experience, recent sexual activity, number of partners, age differences between partners, and contraceptive use at first and most recent intercourse, as well as on socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.*

Sexual Activity

In 1995, 52% of unmarried 15-19-year-olds reported having had sexual intercourse at least once, representing a significant decline of four percentage points since 1988. This proportion dropped from 60% to 55% among males, but remained stable among females (51% and 49%, respectively). The decline among males overall reflects seven-point decreases for whites (from 57% to 50%) and 15-17-year-olds (from 50% to 43%). The investigators note that the stabilization among females is a departure from the upward trend begun in the 1970s.

Females were significantly more likely in 1995 than in 1988 to report having had sex by age 15 (19% vs. 11%); the overall pattern was reflected among blacks, whites and Hispanics. In both years, 21% of males reported sexual experience before age 15. That proportion increased significantly among Hispanics (from 19% in 1988 to 28% in 1995), but changed little among blacks or whites.

The proportion of males who were sexually active (i.e., had had sex in the three months before their interview) decreased significantly between the two surveys (from 43% to 38%), while the proportion of females who reported recent sexual activity was similar in 1988 and 1995 (41% and 38%, respectively).

Contraceptive Use

The proportion of sexually experienced teenage females who used a contraceptive method the first time they had intercourse increased significantly between 1988 and 1995 (from 67% to 77%). Much of the decrease in unprotected sex resulted from a significant increase in condom use by young women's partners (from 50% to 70%). These patterns were evident among blacks and whites, as well as in the sample as a whole.

The level of protected first intercourse among sexually experienced males rose from 71% to 76%, a nonsignificant change. Condom use rose significantly (from 55% to 69%). The proportion of males using condoms at first sex increased significantly among whites and blacks, as well as in the sample as a whole.

Between 1988 and 1995, the proportion of sexually active teenage females who reported having used a contraceptive method the last time they had intercourse declined significantly (from 80% to 71%). In 1988, 43% had relied on the pill, a proportion that dropped to 25% in 1995. Use of two new hormonal methods--the implant and the injectable--offset part of that decline, with 7% of sexually active teenage females relying on those methods in 1995. Blacks were three times as likely as whites to use the new methods in 1995 (16% vs. 5%), while whites were twice as likely as blacks to rely on the pill (30% vs. 15%). In 1995, 38% of females reported that their partner had used a condom the last time they had sex, compared with 31% in 1988. Concurrent use of a hormonal method and the condom increased significantly (from 3% to 8%) between the two years.

The proportion of sexually active males who reported contraceptive use at last intercourse in the two surveys was similar (84% and 82%). Males' reports of reliance on their partner's pill use at last sex declined significantly (from 37% to 28%), while the proportion reporting condom use rose from 53% to 64%. Concurrent use of condoms with a partner's hormonal method, however, changed little from its 1988 level (15%).

In 1988, sexually active black teenage females were less likely than their white counterparts to report contraceptive use at last intercourse (68% vs. 80%); by 1995, however, a significant decrease among whites and a nonsignificant increase among blacks caused the levels of protected sex in the two groups to converge at 73%. In contrast, the proportions of black males and white males reporting protected sex remained stable, although the proportion of black males reporting use of condoms along with their partner's hormonal method decreased significantly (from 28% to 19%).

Number of Partners

In 1995, 37% of sexually experienced teenage females reported only one lifetime partner, while 14% reported six or more. Among males, those proportions were 27% and 24%, respectively. The overall distributions by number of partners in the two years were similar for males; among females, the proportion who had had two partners was significantly larger in 1995 than in 1988 (22% vs. 16%), while the proportion with only one partner was slightly (but not significantly) lower (37% vs. 41%). Females aged 18-19 in 1995 were significantly less likely than their 1988 counterparts to have had only one partner (30% vs. 37%), but were significantly more likely to have had two (23% vs. 16%).

The proportion of white females with two partners was significantly greater in 1995 than in 1988 (22% vs. 14%), and the proportion of black females with only one partner was significantly lower (22% vs. 38%). Among white males, the proportion with six or more partners decreased significantly between the two years (from 23% to 18%). No significant changes occurred among black males or among Hispanic males or females.

In the three months preceding the 1995 surveys, 22% of sexually experienced females and 31% of their male counterparts had had no sexual partners; 61% and 56%, respectively, had had only one partner. Just 17% of females and 13% of males had had two or more partners during that period. The overall proportion of males with two or more partners was significantly lower in 1995 than in 1988 (13% vs. 17%); the same pattern was evident among white males (7% vs. 14%), but not among black or Hispanic males. The data collected for females in 1988 were not comparable to those for 1995; therefore, no analysis of trends was possible.

Age Differences Between Partners

Three of four sexually active teenage females interviewed in 1995 reported that their most recent partner was either their age (20%) or 1-3 years older than they were (56%), while 24% said he was at least four years older. Fewer than 1% reported that their most recent partner was younger than they were. No data on age differences between females and their partners were available for 1988.

More than nine in 10 sexually active males reported that their most recent female partner was within three years of their age--46% said she was 1-3 years younger, 25% the same age and 22% 1-3 years older. Only 2% said their most recent partner was at least four years younger, and just 5% said she was at least four years older. These proportions were similar to those for 1988.

The majority of sexually experienced teenage females (61%) interviewed in 1995 had first had intercourse with a male partner who was 1-3 years older than they were, while 20% had done so with a partner who was at least four years older. Fifteen percent had been the same age as their first partner, and 4% had first had sex with a partner who was 1-3 years younger. Comparable data were not available for 1988.

In 1995, the great majority of males said that their first female partner had been close to their age: 1-3 years younger (24%), the same age (33%) or 1-3 years older (36%). Six percent said she had been at least four years older, and 2% said she had been at least four years younger. None of these proportions were significantly different from those for 1988.--F. Althaus


1. Abma JC and Sonenstein FL, Sexual activity and contraceptive practices among teenagers in the United States, 1988 and 1995, Vital and Health Statistics, 2001, Series 23, No. 21.