Young women and teen girls trying to figure out what's the right age to have sex frequently want to know the answer to a related question: "When do most teens have sex?" When they see other teens having sex on TV and in films -- and read about it in magazines and books -- many get the wrong idea that everyone else is having sex except for them. It's an exaggerated image that's been further inflated by depictions of sexually active teens in films like Juno, reality TV shows like MTV's Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, and TV dramas like ABC Family's The Secret Life of an American Teenager.
The issue is compounded by the fact that in recent months, Teen Mom's reality TV stars have edged out Hollywood celebs on the cover of gossip magazines. The growing presence of pregnant teens in the media spotlight makes it seem as if most teens between 15-19 are having sex -- and that this activity is commonplace.
The truth? The majority of teens age 15-19 are not having sex. In fact, only 46% of teens in this age group in the U.S. have had sex at least once. What worried parents and anxious teens should understand is that the media's obsession with teen sex is more a result of hype than a reflection of reality.
Unlike the heroine of The Secret Life of the American Teenager who first had sex (and became pregnant) when she was 15, real life teens who are sexually active tend to be older. The Guttmacher Institute's January 2010 report "Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health" debunks this and other myths about the sexual behavior of teens.
According to the Guttmacher study, "Most young people have sex for the first time at about age 17." Despite the many TV shows that depict 15 year olds having sex and 16 year olds giving birth, teens are waiting longer to have sex. At age 15, only 13% of never-married teens had sex in 2002, compared to 19% in 1995. By age 19, 7 out of 10 teens have had sex. At age 15, boys are more likely to have had sex (15%) than girls (13%).
Despite the lingering stereotype that teen sex is all about casual hookups with no commitment between sexual partners, more than 75% of teen females report that the first time they had sex, they did so with a steady boyfriend, a fiancé, a husband or a cohabiting partner. The majority of teen females who've had sex (59%) said their first partner was 1-3 years older, while only 8% had partners who were older by 6 years or more.
Teens who engage in sex are taking responsibility for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of sexually active teen females used contraception their first time. Boys did even better -- 82% of teen males used contraception the first time they had sex. According to 2002 statistics, 98% of teen females who have sex use at least one form of birth control. Nearly all (94%) have used a condom at least once, and 61% have used the pill at least once.
Access to contraception is the best line of defense against teen pregnancy. The Guttmacher report indicates that "a sexually active teen who does not use contraceptives has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year."
There's one thing that reality TV shows and teen pregnancy dramas get right -- 82% of teen pregnancies are unplanned.
"Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health." Guttmacher Institute at guttmacher.org. January 2010.