Sexual activity among high school students declined significantly in the 1990s, but that decline stalled in the 2001–2005 period. The proportion of high school students who reported ever having had sexual intercourse remained unchanged between 2001 and 2005, after having dropped from 54.1% in 1991 to 45.6% in 2001, according to a new report from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics titled “America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2007.”

The newly released data, which indicate that the declines in teen sexual activity among high school students largely predated the federal government’s major investment in abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs, provides important new context for the ongoing debate over those expenditures. Despite compelling evidence that abstinence-only programs do not stop—or even delay—teen sex, these programs are currently funded at a level of $176 million annually. In contrast, there is no comparable federal program to support sex education that includes information about both abstinence and contraceptive use, an approach proven effective at promoting both delays in sexual activity and protective behaviors among teens when they do become sexually active.

A very positive development tracked by the America’s Children report was improved condom use. The proportion of high school students who reported using a condom during last sexual intercourse increased consistently between 1991 and 2003, from 46.2% to 63%, and remained at that level between 2003 and 2005. Future gains may be jeopardized by the fact that the proportion of U.S. teens receiving any formal instruction about birth control methods has declined sharply, as a 2006 study by Guttmacher Institute researchers noted. Only 66% of males and 70% of females received formal instruction about birth control in 2002, compared with 81–87% in 1995.

The America’s Children report also highlights that the birthrate for teens aged 15–17 reached a historic low in 2005. While the report does not address the reasons for the decline in teen birthrates, a recent Guttmacher study found that 86% of the decline in the overall U.S. teen pregnancy rate (which includes all pregnancies that end in births, induced abortions or miscarriages) between 1995 and 2002 was the result of improved contraceptive use, while only a small proportion of the decline (14%) can be attributed to teens waiting longer to start having sex.

Click here to learn more about:

Why strong evidence favors a comprehensive approach to sex education

Why U.S. teen pregnancy rates are down

An authoritative study that concludes that abstinence-only education does not work

Why one in three teens get no formal education about contraception