Every once in a while I post about the latest high-profile bad scholarship on youth and students. There’s all sorts of crap social science writing out there, but in this particular field what makes a splash is research that reinforces prejudices about young people — that they’re narcissists, that they’re overly entitled, that they drink too much, that they’re having too much sex too soon.
That last one is a biggie. Ask any middle-aged person about young people’s sexuality, and chances are they’ll bend your ear about how young people are having sex earlier, more casually, and more recklessly than ever before. You’ll hear all about “the hook-up culture,” and rainbow parties, and so on and on.
But there’s no evidence of any such shift, and in fact all the data we have points in the other direction.
Here’s a great write-up of what we know about heterosexual teen sexual activity. Compared to twenty years ago, teen girls aged 15-19 are 20% more likely to report being virgins, and boys the same age are more than 25% more likely. Three-quarters of girls who have had sex say they were in a serious relationship when they lost their virginity.
This is all self-reported, of course, but it’s backed up by hard data. Teen pregnancy rates have plummeted since the mid-1990s, after holding steady for the previous two decades. Today’s teenagers are just half as likely to get pregnant before their eighteenth birthday as their parents’ generation was, and as a result both teen abortion rates and teen motherhood have dropped dramatically.
Other studies demonstrate that media reports about an epidemic of casual, predatory oral sex among young teens are similarly unfounded. Most teenagers who report having had oral sex say they’ve also had intercourse, and that they started both activities at about the same time. And the vast majority of teens of either gender who say they’ve given oral sex say they’ve received it as well. (These numbers are from 2002. Data from a 2006-08 survey should be available soon, and I’ll pass those stats on when I get them.)
Oh, and the percent of teens aged 15-19 who report having used contraception the last time they had intercourse has risen from 84.2% in 1988 to 93.3% in 2006-08, with condom use soaring from 53.3% to 78.8%. In the same time period, the number of teens reporting that they used condoms and the pill more than doubled, to 35.3%.
So, to sum up: Today’s teens are having intercourse later than their parents’ generation, and taking safer sex precautions far more consistently. They’re getting pregnant less and having fewer abortions. They’re having intercourse and oral sex mostly in the context of committed relationships, and the vast majority of them are reporting that their sexual experiences have been reciprocal.
But don’t look for any of this info on the nightly news.