Adolescents and premarital sex

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kinsey and colleagues found that 71 percent of males and 33 percent of females had experienced premarital intercourse by the age of 25 (Kinsey et al., 1953, 2006). Beginning in the late 1960s, the proportion of teenage women who had ever had sexual intercourse increased substantially through 1988 (Hofferth et al, 1987; Forrest and Singh, 1990; CDC, 1991). A national survey of never-married women aged 15-19 years in the US in 1971 found that 28 percent had experienced sexual intercourse (Kantner and Zelnick, 1972). A second national survey conducted in 1976 revealed that the proportion of individuals in this same group had increased to 34.9 percent (Zelnick and Kanter, 1977). By 1982, 47.1 percent of teenage women had ever had sex; by 1988, 53.2 percent of teenage women were reporting ever having had sex (Forrest and Singh, 1990). Data since 1988, however, suggest that this historical trend has stopped and perhaps reversed (Abma and Sonenstein, 2001; CDC, 2002). Between 1991 and 2001, the percentage of women in high school who had ever had sexual intercourse decreased from 51 percent to 43 percent (CDC, 2002) Sexual experience among young men has followed a similar pattern. In 1979, 66 percent of males aged 17 to 19 had ever had sex. By 1988, this statistic had reached 76 percent for this cohort, but by 1995 had dropped to 68 percent (Ku et al., 1998). In 2001, 49 percent of male teens reported ever having had sex (CDC, 2006a).

Contraceptive use among teens has also changed significantly over time. In the early 1970s, Kantner and Zelnick reported that half of sexually active 15-19-year-old women failed to use contraception at the most recent sexual intercourse (Kantner and Zelnik, 1973). Between 1971 and 1976 the use of oral contraceptives nearly doubled, while other methods, including condoms, rhythm, and withdrawal methods, decreased (Zelnick and Kantner, 1977). By the mid-1970s, the birth-control pill was the most common contraceptive method, followed by condoms and withdrawal (Biddlecom, 2004). In the early 1980s, nearly half of 20-29-year-olds reported condom use at first intercourse, but only about 14 percent reported condom use at last intercourse compared to more than half reporting use of the pill at last intercourse (Tanfer and Horn, 1985). Partly in response to the AIDS epidemic and subsequent education programs, condom use among adolescents increased dramatically in the 1980s, while the use of birth-control pills declined (Biddlecom, 2004). In 1991, 46 percent of sexually active high-school students reported condom use at last intercourse, and by 2003 this proportion had increased to 63 percent (CDC, 2006a).

Some possible reasons for the recent delayed initiation of sexual intercourse and improved contraceptive practice are that teenagers are more fearful of acquiring a STI, have better access to effective hormonal contraception, are responding to the increased emphasis on abstinence, or that changes in welfare reform had an effect on delaying childbearing (Sonenstein, 2004).

The connection between age of initiation of first sexual intercourse, condom use and STI is not well documented, although some patterns in the prevalence of STI in adolescents have emerged. Between 1970 and the late 1980s, when age for the initiation of sexual intercourse was dropping among young women (CDC, 1991), the prevalence of genital herpes among adolescents increased (Fleming et al., 1997). The prevalence of gonorrhea in adolescents also increased between 1981 and 1986, but then dropped between 1986 and 1996 (Fox et al., 1998) as condom use increased (Biddlecom, 2004). Since 1990, the prevalence of genital chlamydia among a sample of young women entering job-training programs has also dropped (Mertz et al., 2001). Diagnoses of HIV/AIDS among adolescents in the second half of the 1990s also decreased (Biddlecom, 2004). As Biddlecom (2004) observes, despite limitations in the available data on adolescents and STI, a connection can be made between decreases in the numbers of adolescents who have ever had sexual intercourse, increases in the use of condoms among adolescents, and decreases in several primary STI.

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