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Sex among young adolescents is rare, study finds

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"Policymakers and the media often sensationalize teen sexual behavior, suggesting that adolescents as young as 10 or 11 are increasingly sexually active. But the data just don't support that concern."

Despite public perception, sexual activity among young adolescents — those 13 or younger — is rare in the United States, according to a study published Monday by researchers from the Guttmacher Institute in New York.

Using data from a nationally representative U.S. survey taken during the years 2006-2010 of people born between 1984 and 1993, the researchers found that less than 1 percent of women reported being 11 years old or younger when they first had sex (defined as heterosexual vaginal intercourse). Another 1 percent said they had been 12 years old, and 2 percent said they had been 13 years old at the time they became sexually active.

The percentages were only slightly higher among the male respondents: 2 percent said they had had sex by their 12th birthday, and 5 percent said they had done so by their 13th.

"Policymakers and the media often sensationalize teen sexual behavior, suggesting that adolescents as young as 10 or 11 are increasingly sexually active," said the study’s lead author, Lawrence Finer, in a prepared statement. "But the data just don't support that concern. Rather, we are seeing teens waiting longer to have sex, using contraceptives more frequently when they start having sex, and being less likely to become pregnant than their peers of past decades."

‘A different public health concern’

Sadly, the survey also found that among young girls, sex is usually nonconsensual. Some 62 percent of the surveyed women who had sex by their 10th birthday and 50 percent of those who had sex by their 11th birthday reported that the sex was coerced. (The survey data on males did not include this information.)

Pregnancies among pre-teens are “exceedingly rare,” Finer and his co-author, Jesse M. Philbin, note, and thus “arguably represent a different public health concern than the broader issue of pregnancies to older teens.”

Yet the Obama administration used health concerns about sexually active pre-teens as a key reason for overturning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 recommendation to make Plan B, the so-called morning after birth control pill, available over-the-counter to girls and women of all ages.

“About 10 percent of girls are physically capable of bearing children by 11.1 years of age. It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age,” said Health and Human Resources Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement announcing that Plan B would be available without a doctor’s prescription only to women aged 17 and older.

Such comments “imply that their speakers believe there is a substantial level of sexual activity among 10- and 11-year-old girls,” write Finer and Philbin.

Other findings

Using data from other surveys of people born as early as 1939, Finer and Philibin shattered another myth about teenage sexuality in the U.S. — that it was rare among past generations. They found instead that the median age for first sexual encounter has never fallen beneath age 17 at any time over the past 50 years.

The study also confirms what other recent reports have found: Today’s teens are more likely to delay sex than those of more recent generations.

Here are some other findings from the study:

  • Most middle-teens are not sexually active. Some 19 percent of the women surveyed and 22 percent of the men reported being sexually active at age 15. Those percentages increased to 32 percent and 35 percent at age 16.
  • About 26 percent of the survey respondents — both women and men — said they had not had sex by their 20th birthday.
  • A substantial proportion of young women use contraception during the first month of becoming sexually active: 82 percent of 16-year-olds, for example, and 85 percent of 17- to 18-year-olds. That number is much smaller for pre-teens, however: around 50 percent.
  • Among girls aged 13 and younger, most pregnancies end in abortion. Among girls aged 14 and older, pregnancies are more likely to end in birth than abortion.

“Teaching young adolescents about contraceptive methods and prescribing or offering methods before they are likely to become sexually active is prudent,” conclude Finer and Philbin. “Knowledge of and access to contraception at an earlier age would help those adolescents who initiate sex early, and would likely increase contraceptive use among older teens as well.”

A challenging task

Persuading Americans — and, more importantly, perhaps, their political leaders — to expand access to contraception is, of course, a challenging task. As Finer and Philbin note in their study, 54 percent of Americans surveyed in 2007 said that teens should not be allowed access to contraception until the ages of 16 to 19.

And 6 percent said teens shouldn’t have access to birth control at all.

The study appears in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, despite being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Comments (1)

Teen libido

My purely anecdotal and unscientific observations over 30 years in a public high school classroom, plus numerous school-sponsored extracurricular activities, fall in line with the study's conclusions. Teens talk a lot about sexuality, especially when they're talking in small groups. It's a constant source of conversation, giggling, lewd jokes and so on, but as we all know, talking and doing are quite different things. My impression was that much of the talking was a way of sounding out peers and old people about what, actually, was involved, emotionally, physiologically, and in terms of relationships. A "kicking of the tires," if you will, by both males and females, without actually getting behind the wheel or starting the engine.

As an aside, let me add that, while I was only occasionally an actual participant, the conversations I typically overheard (and I've been retired for more than a decade, so perhaps this has changed to some degree) revealed in stark relief the deplorable state of sex education in the community where I was teaching. The knowledge and level of sophistication essentially rose as the age of those involved in the conversation increased. Freshmen were all red-faced and/or bashful, and disappointingly uninformed, while many a senior pretended expertise, whether justified by experience or not. Plenty of teenaged Lotharios and temptresses had no direct experience at all, but managed to sound like disciples of Casanova. Flirting was ever-present, so much so that it sometimes felt like part of the atmosphere we all had to breathe, but sexual activity was, itself, less often practiced.

There were some students, male and female, who were ahead of the crowd, so to speak, and they didn't fit any particular behavioral profile, but even at the time, I thought they were in the minority.