Part One of a two-part series.
Earlier this month, the media jumped all over a new report about sexual behavior of both young people and adults. Though the study, the latest analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), is chock full of interesting information about teens, one thing seemed to resonate most with journalists. There are more virgins. Or at least that’s what the headlines announced. “Good news everyone more teens are not having sex!”
Well, kind of.
In 2006–2008, 29 percent of females and 27 percent of males ages 15 to 24 reported that they had never had sexual contact with another person. This was a small but statistically significant change from 2002 when it was 22 percent for both males and females. And, it made a big splash in the press. Headlines proclaimed “More Young People Delay Sex,” “Is Virginity the New Black?,” and, my favorite from a UK publication, “No Sex Please, We’re Americans.” The journalists and experts they interviewed seemed to agree that this was good news and that adults, parents in particular, should be pleased. In his New York Times editorial on the importance of monogamy, Ross Douthat went as far as to say that this statistic was good news for all Conservatives.
Not only did the media gloss over tons of information on oral sex, anal sex, and sexual identity, they also ignored some of the subtleties of this new news on “virginity.” In truth, the change was very small and only statistically significant when looked at for the whole group of 15 to 24 year olds; when looked at in two separate groups 15 to 19 and 20 to 24 years it was no longer significant (and let’s face when it comes to how we feel about young people and sex there’s a whole world between a 16-year-old and a 23-year-old). More importantly, this statistic only refers to those young people who had never had any sexual contact (by which the researchers meant oral, anal, or vaginal sex) with another person; the percentage of young people who had had vaginal sex, for example, was unchanged from 2002, and we have no idea whether they were kissing, caressing, or otherwise canoodling.
It is true that the young people who fit into this no-sexual-contact-of-any-kind category are protected from sexually transmitted disease (STDs) and pregnancy. But I don’t think this is why the media zeroed in on this finding or why one expert declared it “extraordinary progress on a social issue that many once considered intractable.” When it comes to teen sexual behavior, our society seems to remain stuck on the idea that no sex is the only acceptable finding.
I would argue that there is, in fact, good news about teen sex to be found in this study and in previous reports. Many teens are making responsible decisions when it comes to their sexual behavior; they delay sex, have fewer partners, and use contraception. And yet, we adults give them so little credit for behaving, in many ways, better than us.
AND THE SURVEY SAYS…
Traditionally, when thinking about sex and surveying individuals about their behavior, we have concentrated on penile-vaginal intercourse. This focus makes some sense from a public health perspective as it is the only behavior that can lead to both pregnancy and STDs. That said, other behaviors certainly carry a risk of STDs, and, the focus on vaginal sex by nature excludes all same-sex behavior. Still, I sense that the primary reason for this focus is something different—a societal understanding (however, inaccurate, incomplete, and exclusionary) that only penile-vaginal sex is sex.
In fact, this is one of the things that surprised me most when the media seized on the data about those individuals who had no sexual contact and proclaimed that we now had more “virgins.” It also frustrates me most when media reports chastise young people (or former Presidents) for not thinking oral sex is sex. Did anyone ever walk up to his/her best friend the morning after they first gave or received a blow job and say “Guess what, I lost my virginity?” I think not, but I digress.
The truth is that if we really want to understand what adolescents are doing when it comes to sex and, hopefully, help them make better, healthier decisions, we need to get past categories and labels and ask more questions. This is what makes the latest report from the NSFG, Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (hereafter referred to as Sexual Behavior 2006–2008), particularly helpful because it did focus on additional behaviors, including oral and anal sex, and it looked at same-sex behavior as well as sexual identity. Other information on sexual behavior in this article comes from Teenagers in the United States; Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008, an earlier report based on the same set of data, and the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) a study out of Indiana University for which researchers surveyed a representative sample of individuals ages 14 to 94 about a wide range of sexual behavior.
So What Are They Doing?
According to Teenagers in the United States, 42 percent of never-married females and 43 percent of never married-males have had vaginal sex in their lifetime. This number is not changed from 2002, however, leading up to 2002 there had been a steady decline with the percentage of never-married females ages 15–19 who had had vaginal intercourse dropping from 51 percent in 1988 to 49 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 2002. Similarly for never-married males the percentage that had had vaginal sex dropped from 60 percent in 1988 to 55 percent in 1995 to 45 percent in 2002 but did not drop again.
There are lots of different theories about why the percentages of young people who had vaginal intercourse dropped during those years. Some argue that this is when teens started becoming highly aware of the risk of HIV and that a life-threatening STD was a game changer for teenagers. Others credit sexuality education while still others undoubtedly credit abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. One mother of a teenager jokingly argued it was all because of video games—if teens are really logging 30 hours a week of screen time, when would they possibly have time to have sex? We may never really know but it is worth trying to understand as the numbers seem to have leveled out in recent years.
Sexual Behavior 2006–2008 also looks at oral and anal sex among teens which is a step in the right direction when it comes to getter a broader picture. Though anal sex remains relatively rare (11 percent of females and 10 percent of males ages 15 to 19 report engaging in anal sex with an opposite-sex partner and 1 percent of males that age report doing so with a partner of the same sex), oral sex is quite common—27 percent of 15-year-old boys and 23 percent of 15-year-old girls have ever had oral sex with an opposite-sex partner and, by ages 18 and 19, these numbers jump to 70 percent for boys and 63 percent for girls. In addition, 7 percent of females and 2 percent of males ages 15-to 19 report oral sex with a same-sex partner.
Journalists and experts have spouted many theories about this rise in oral sex among teens; most of them negative. Some say that teens are using oral sex to avoid vaginal sex and, therefore, prevent pregnancy and to live up to society’s hopes that they stay virginal. Others suggest that oral sex now has a certain cache and teens are using it to gain popularity and prestige. And still others have referred to it (with fear in their voice I imagine) as a “gateway” to vaginal sex.
But this is rampant speculation. We don’t even know if there is a real rise in this behavior because we just started asking about it; 2002 was the first time questions on oral sex were included in the NSFG and there was no statistically significant change since then. As for the theory that teens are having oral sex instead of vaginal sex to preserve their chastity, the numbers don’t seem to support it as only 7 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 and 9 percent of males ages 15 to 19 reported having had oral sex but not vaginal sex. In fact, only 50 percent of young people ages 15 to 24 reported having had oral sex before vaginal sex.
The truth is that there is still so much we don’t know about teen sexual behavior and that, while adding oral and anal sex data is helpful, it is not enough. “We talk about explicit penetrative sex behaviors but we don’t talk about what leads up to it,” explains Logan Levkoff, sexologist and author of Third Base Ain’t What it Used to Be, What Your Kids Are Learning About Sex Today, and How to Teach Them to Become Sexually Healthy Adults, “so we don’t have a true picture of how a relationship progresses among teenagers. We seem to think that teens go from kissing to blow jobs and we’re forgetting that there is a range of intimate behaviors that lead up to those acts.” Dennis Fortenberry, Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University and one of the researchers on the NSSHB, points out that putting people into groups based on their reported sexual behavior is not helpful. Labeling someone a virgin, he says, “misrepresents what those young people are doing to learn about sex. They’re probably still dancing, holding hands, kissing. Those are also part of how people learn about attraction and arousal.”
Fortenberry and his colleagues often refer to a broad repertoire of sexual behavior, which is why the NSSHB asked about not just oral, anal, and vaginal sex but also about masturbation both alone and with a partner. It will likely not come as a surprise to anyone that that the most common sexual behavior among teens is solo-masturbation; the NSSHB found that 48 percent of teens ages 14 to 17 had engaged in solo masturbation in their lifetime compared to 22 percent who had given oral sex, 19 percent who had received it, 23 percent who had had vaginal intercourse, and 5 percent who had had anal intercourse.
These surveys give us even more details about what young people are doing. In the next installment, we will go over the who, what, where, and when of teenage sexual behavior as well as look at data that suggests that sexually active teens are being very responsible when it comes to using contraception and disease prevention methods. More importantly, though, we will look at how limiting this data is when it comes to trying to help teens make good decisions and what we really need focus on in order raise a generation of sexually healthy young people.