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Youth in US Delaying Sexual Activity, What Does It Mean?

A recent National Health Statistics Report has released data in a report called “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth.” The report states it provides national estimates of sexual activity and behaviors among men and women ages 15-44.

The data does not mention if transgender or gender non-conforming people were included. As a result, I am assuming they were not and any discussion based on gender is not inclusive of all communities and thus may not give a complete picture for all youth in this age group.

Some of the findings include an increase in youth waiting to have a first sexual encounter. This increase comes from comparing data obtained in 2002. The report states that in 2002 22% of young men and women ages 15-24 had never had any sexual contact where as in 2006-2008 those numbers increased for the age group to 27% for men and 29% for women. Specifically looking at youth ages 15-17, 53% of young men and 58% of young women reported never having any form of sexual activity. This is a seven to ten percent increase since 2002.

As respondents age their choice to engage in consensual sexual activity increases, as has been the case for decades. However, the percentage of youth who have only had oral sex and not any other form of penetrative intercourse remain low, yet as penetrative intercourse becomes a part of their sexual health history these numbers decrease.  However, the reality remains that focusing on STI prevention for younger youth must still be a priority. As the report argues, some youth are putting “themselves at risk for STI and HIV before thy are ever at risk for pregnancy.”

USA Today reporter Sharon Jayson interviews several professionals in the field of reproductive and sexual health of young people and many of them make strong important arguments about our ideas about youth. Jennifer Manlove from Child Trends is quoted as saying that youth “may be more in control of their behaviors than we think.” I appreciate this quote because I think it speaks to many of use working with, raising, educating, and/or mentoring youth. There are ideas that their peers, media, and lack of supportive and affirming messages from various support networks youth are a part of influence them negatively. Yet, we rarely talk about how youth have agency, can provide consent, and are important contributing members of society.

A majority of the articles focusing on this research are interested specifically in the “virginity boom.” The Week provided an interesting list of 5 reasons why there is an “teen virginity boom.” Included in the list are: virginity is trendy, sex education is working, youth don’t have time for sex, youth desire quality, not quantity, and maybe respondents were not being honest.

I believe this is more complicated and there may not be just one answer. If we are to want our choices and experiences to be respected and to be seen as complicated individuals we must offer that to youth as well. Let us first acknowledge that the 15 year olds that were interviewed at this time may now be adults today, and their experiences may have changed. So, a majority of the respondents in this research are possibly currently sexually active to some degree.

What if we acknowledged that media images, even if not the most positive or inclusive, had an impact on youth, especially when connected to strong messages from parents and adults in their lives coupled with comprehensive sexuality education. Are we ready to give shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom some credit in providing examples and conversations for youth to witness and absorb?

Are we ready to acknowledge that some youth do value activism and education in ways we may not have imagined before? That their work is just as important, if not more, than our own as they are “insiders” to communities we have aged out of. Will any of us do anything different with this new data? And if so, will any of that include transgender youth?


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