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Research Heads Up – The CDC’s Findings on Teens’ Risky Sexual Behavior

June 5, 2008

After years of researching indicating decreases in numbers of sexually active teens and increases in condom use by the same population, rates have ceased to improve. Recent stats look like those findings are reversing, meaning more teens may be sexually active while fewer use condoms. This data came from the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the CDC and has been wildly reported across sexual health and well being news outlets. This time around, the survey showed that about 1/3 or high schoolers have sex, while short of 2/3 thirds of the sexually active use condoms. Results have slowly worsened over the 2000s, including the number of youth having sex before the age of 13 (yes, 13), those with 4+ partners, and those who have had sex in the past few months (prior to the survey). Although the percentage increases were small (just over a percent, in some cases) there is a decent chance the sexual activity rates were under reported, and condom use over reported, because only teens in school were surveyed. The numbers are still far lower than in 1991, judging from my glance at the ethnicity data. Speaking of ethnicity, we still see African-Americans having the most pre-teen sex, followed by Hispanics and Euro/White Americans. The survey also found that Hispanic youth are lagging in improvements since the early 1990s and are most likely suffer from safety concerns that keep them from attending school.

Interestingly, the CDC’s press release focused on health and service disparities encountered by the Hispanic community and on overall improvements since 1991. However, the major news outlets focused on ethnic disparities in general (some on Hispanic rates) and the lack of improved stats in the past few years. Links for various reports on this research are below.

As expected, both sides of the sex-education debate are blaming each other. The pro-abstinence education side yelled at the pro-comprehensive folks for encouraging sexual activity in youth, while the comprehensive sex ed side returned fire. The comprehensive sex education folks noting that the pro-abstinence programs have statistically poor results with lowering teen sexual activity, while discouraging condom usage. Good times!

So what does all of this have to do with pleasure? As a sexuality educator, I’m on the side of comprehensive sexuality education. Many folks on the comprehensive side would love to see our youth delay first intercourse, and encourage abstinence or a return to it. Afterall, these decisions and consequences are pretty darned hefty for our developmentally maturing adolescents to tackle, no matter what they say about being grown up. The good old brain doesn’t finish off until the early 20s, especially for boys! Beginning with solid facts and useful, applicable information, teens (and pre-teens) can then own and stand behind their sexual health decisions. However, this must take place within a context of a value driven belief system, or it is just a set of dry and context-free facts. Whether a family wants to see their child strutting her/his stuff on prom night or demurely ending her/his dates with a kiss is up to them (and their youth), and I would rather parents handle that side than me. Raising dogs is so much easier, I tell you. Just get ’em fixed and you’re grandpuppy free!

I would also like to bring up the necessity of giving our youth an accurate and functional language for their anatomy and what happens with/to it. Our children cannot come to us and warn us of possible damage being done to them, or their fears of it, if they have no one to speak to and no words to use. Our news has made sure that we know that our children face frightening risks of sex abuse, lets be sure that there is a safe environment for sharing and words to do it. With so many children under 13 experiencing sex I’m quite certain that unconsensual acts are occurring. Not that our older youth are any safer or more able to seek help and health care, mind you.

By learning about healthy, happy, appropriate, and well-timed sexuality we can provide role models for youth, and also help them to grow safely into sexually health adults. We have a responsibility to do better than scaring our children into waiting until that magic day when bodies and sex are no longer shameful or deadly. By taking that route we set them up for a harsh struggle with the transition to socially acceptable sexuality after years of shame, guilt, ignorance, and myth-based learning. Sexuality is a wonderful part of life, in appropriate ways and times. Educational approaches can recognize this, and thus encourage youth to make healthy decisions, while preparing them for an adulthood full of pleasurable exploration and experiences.

Links on the CDC study:

National Partnership for Women & Families – Review

Washington Post – Review

NPR – Review

CDC’s Research

CDC’s Press Release

Interested in learning more about how to talk with your children about sex, or about kids are up to these days?

Check out one of Exploring Intimacy’s workshops in Atlanta this summer!

Or, drop us a question and we might answer it on our blog and include it in a podcast.

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