High Schoolers Are Waiting Longer To Have Sex — Let’s Give Them the Information They Need

Laura D. Lindberg, Rutgers School of Public Health Jesseca Boyer, Guttmacher Institute
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First published on The Hill:

On Jan. 5 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a new report showing that between 2005 and 2015, more high school students are waiting longer to have sex for the first time. This delay resulted in fewer students reporting ever having sex among 9th and 10th graders overall, Hispanic 9th-11th graders, and black students in 9th-12th grade.

The report does not, however, provide answers as to the underlying causes for this delay, saying that more research is needed to understand what’s driving the change. So what are we to make of all this?

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

These patterns are part of a bigger picture, but may not yet be a trend

These findings follow other reported declines over the same period in other behaviors among adolescents, such as drinking, smoking, and drug use. When it comes to delaying their first sexual experience, however, most of the reported change is very recent, with the vast majority happening between 2013 and 2015. There is reason to be cautious before calling this a trend, as opposed to a short term change. Another big U.S. government survey — the National Survey of Family Growth, which interviews adolescents both in and out of school — does not show a change during these same years in either 15 to 17 or 18 to 19 year-olds ever having had sex.

We will have to wait and see what whether this is a sustained trend, and in the meantime be wary of overstating its significance.  Data for 2017 is currently being collected and will provide us with more information.

Delays in young people’s age of first sex are not a vindication of abstinence-only programs

Undoubtedly, proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs will tout this report as validation for their approach. It isn’t. For one, most of the reported delay in sexual activity happened since 2010, when the Obama administration deemphasized abstinence-only programs and promoted the use of evidence to inform adolescent sexual health efforts. Also, rigorous research accumulated over the past 20 years has consistently shown that abstinence-only programs do not have an overall impact on young people’s age of first intercourse. Nor are they effective at their primary goal of young people waiting until marriage to have sex.

Abstinence-only programs are not only ineffective but may also be harmful—for instance because they withhold critical information, perpetuate gender stereotypes, and ignore the needs of LGBTQ and other marginalized young people. Faced with this reality, their proponents in Congress and the Trump administration are hard at work to try and rebrand “abstinence-only” as “sexual risk avoidance.” But even with new packaging, these are still the same discredited and harmful programs that have been funded for decades — to the tune of over $2 billion.  

Young people need and have the right to accurate and complete information

Perhaps the most important finding from this report is that while young people may be delaying the first time they have sex, they are still as likely as in prior years to have had sex by the time they graduate high school. The delays of sex in 9th and 10th grade are followed by a catch-up in later grades and more than half of 12 grade students, both female and male, have had sex.

Therefore we need to do what we can, not only to continue to help young people  delay sexual initiation — if they choose to do so — but also to support their health when they do start having sex, whether that be in high school or further down the road.

Alarmingly, despite what this report continues to highlight, the Trump administration is aggressively pushing to end science-based programs designed to help prevent unintended pregnancies among young people. The CDC did not credit these programs directly for the observed trend in first sex, but does mention “innovations in and federal resources” for HIV, STI, and pregnancy prevention among young people as a possible contributing factor.

For policymakers, in Washington D.C. and in the states, the implications are clear: They should prioritize education that provides youth with accurate, unbiased and comprehensive sexual health information and skills.

This should focus not just on sexual behaviors, but also incorporate tools for building healthy relationships, including communication, decision making and sexual consent. Repeating the mistakes of the past and pouring even more public resources into abstinence-only programs won’t get us there.