Groundbreaking Work on Teenage Sex

In 1971, Johns Hopkins University researchers John F. Kantner and Melvin Zelnik conducted the first-ever survey exploring issues pertaining to sex and contraception among teenage women in the U.S. One of the earliest reports coming out of their work appeared in a 1972 Perspectives article and focused on what the researchers learned from the survey’s 4,240 never-married respondents. Among the key findings:

  • Roughly three in 10 of these young women (who were 15–19 years old) had had intercourse.
  • Blacks were more likely than whites to be sexually experienced, but they had had fewer partners and reported less frequent sexual activity.
  • Three-fifths of the teenagers with sexual experience had had only one partner, and half had had sex only with the man they intended to marry.
  • Teenagers’ levels of knowledge about some basic biology and related risks differed by their socioeconomic status, but were inadequate at best. For example, just over half of those whose mothers had gone to college knew when in the menstrual cycle the risk of pregnancy is greatest.

Over the next decade or so, Kantner, Zelnik and their colleagues published 19 more articles on their work about teenagers in Perspectives.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine