About 43 percent of teenagers age 15-19 have had sexual intercourse at least once according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s periodic National Survey of Family Growth released today. That’s about the same percentage as in the 2002 survey, but there was an important positive difference: Boys are using condoms more often both as the sole method of contraception, and also in combination with a girl’s hormonal contraception.
Eighty percent of the teen boys surveyed used a condom the first time they had sex, an increase of 9 percentage points from 2002.
Meanwhile, girls are using hormonal contraception at about the same rate they did in 2002, but are making increasing use of new versions, including the birth control patch, emergency contraception, and injectables.
Whether because of these changes or a combination of other factors, the teen birth rate, which had showed an alarming uptick from 2005 to 2007, fell back once again to 39.1 births per 1,000 girls between 15-19 in the year 2009. That represents a 37 percent drop since 1991.
Nevertheless, said James Trussell, who directs Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and is an expert on family planning, the new data, based on interviews with 4,662 teens between 2006 and 2010, aren’t necessarily worthy of applause.
Given that the teen pregnancy rate of roughly 70 per 1,000 girls is more than double that of Canada, for example, the U.S. has a long way to go.
“There is a serious lack of education,” about sexuality and contraception, he said in an interview. “We run a website at Princeton where I answer questions and we’ve had 12,000 or more since it began. The amount of ignorance is overwhelming.”
While use of emergency contraception – which was hotly debated when it was introduced – has risen, neither it nor other hormonal methods except implants work that well, Trussell explained, because they require patient adherence. “It’s the same problem adults have,” he said. “They have to comply with instructions or the methods won’t work nearly as well as IUDs and [hormonal] implants. Until we get much greater fractions of women, including teens, using IUDs and implants, we are not going to see huge reductions in unintended pregnancies.”
The issue of sex education may play out once again during the coming election year. Though study after study has shown that abstinence-only sex education “only makes sure that teens having first sex don’t use contraception,” Trussell said, some political candidates still push for it.
Given that the survey showed a strong link between social, family, and educational status and age at first sex, effective educational interventions ought to begin at least as early as junior high school. The survey showed that younger girls whose first sex was with older boys used contraception at a much lower rate than older girls or younger girls who had first sex with a boy their own age. Teaching girls how to say no when they do not want sex, and how to protect themselves when they do, is “extremely valuable,” Trussell argued.