Trends in Sexual Activity and Abstinence Among U.S. Men and Women

Dr. Christine Bachrach

I'll be addressing three points as I talk about what our national data tell us about abstinence and sexual activity. First, I’ll be drawing a map of the behaviors that abstinence programs seek to influence, showing how sexual activity varies with demographic and other characteristics. Second, I’ll make a distinction between two kinds of abstinence – primary and secondary, and will argue that both are worth paying attention to. And third, I’ll be talking about the trends in sexual activity we’ve seen over recent decades, and examine the evidence about what’s happening to those trends now.

Let me begin by defining terms. The goal of abstinence programs provided for in the new legislation is to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing. “Sex” can mean many things, but what we want to focus on here is the kind of sex that can cause pregnancy, that is, vaginal sexual intercourse. We also are mainly interested in sex outside of marriage. I’ll be showing you data about sexual activity regardless of marriage at first to give you a general picture, but later on I’ll focus on teenage sex. Teens are an important group for two reasons: one, they are very unlikely to be married; and two, because they are highly likely to be initiating sexual activity for the first time. Even though I focus on teenagers, it’s very important to realize that older men and women – especially those in their 20s – are as or more likely to be having sex outside of marriage; AND they have the highest rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Whether or not a person is having sex is influenced in systematic ways by characteristics such as age, gender, marital status, and economic status. Some of these influence the likelihood of sex through biological mechanisms, some because they shape expectations about how people should behave, and some because they connect people with resources and opportunities that influence their behavior. [fig.] For example, age – very few individuals have sexual intercourse before puberty, but within a few years after reaching puberty the proportion with sexual experience starts to rise steeply – from 22 percent at age 15 to 76 percent at 19 according to these data on women from 1995. Sexual experience continues to climb less steeply during the 20s; by the late 20s and early 30s nearly all women have experienced sexual intercourse. [fig.] This next figure shows data for sexual activity in the past year, for adult men and women 18 to 59 in 1993. This confirms that in adulthood most people are having sex, but suggests a gender difference: the proportion of men who say they’ve had sex within the past year remains fairly steady throughout adulthood, whereas the proportion of women declines gradually starting around age 30. [fig.] Gender differences also show up in adolescence, where we consistently see a higher percentage of boys than girls who report sexual activity at every age – these data are from a school based survey in 1990 and show the differences by grade.

[fig.] Given the meaning and purpose of marriage, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that marriage affects sexual behavior – as these data for adults show, virtually all married men and women report having sex in the past twelve months. When unmarried men and women cohabit the same is true, but even among noncohabiting unmarried adults, about 3 out of 4 on average report having sex in the past year. Married and cohabiting people have sex more often, but being sexually active to some degree is very common among unmarried adult men and women. [fig.] There are a wide range of other characteristics that are associated with sexual activity because they reflect access to resources and opportunities and also because they reflect differences in norms and social controls. There have been long-standing differences in patterns of teen sexual behavior among black, white and Hispanic youth: these data from 1995 show the higher proportion of black women compared with white and Hispanic women who first had sex before 18. Family background has a consistent effect as well – in these data, women coming from more educated families, and those who lived with both parents while they were growing up, are least likely to have begun having sex before 18. Other characteristics that influence the timing of first sex include poverty, involvement with religious institutions, parenting behaviors, influence from peers and siblings, characteristics of the neighborhood and local community, and attitudes about gender roles.

[fig.] This next figure illustrates an important point for abstinence programs. When we think about promoting abstinence, we tend to think primarily about delaying the age at which young people first have intercourse. There is wisdom in this – having sex early lengthens the exposure to the risks of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, and it also tends to be associated with riskier behaviors – not using contraception, having more partners, having sex more frequently, and having sex as a result of coercion or abuse. So delaying the first sexual experience is a very important goal for abstinence programs, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the only goal. Secondary abstinence – abstaining for a period of time after sexual debut – is very common, and it confers exactly the same protection against unintended pregnancy that primary abstinence does. In this figure, you can see that 2 out of 5 9th grade boys who had ever had sex had abstained during the 3-month period before they were interviewed in 1995; for 9th grade girls the figure was about 1 in 3. Secondary abstinence is less common among 12th graders, and becomes less common still in the 20s. Other data show that sexually experienced, unmarried teenaged girls have sex on average during about 8 months a year; teenaged boys about 6 months. What these data are reflecting is the intermittent and temporary nature of heterosexual relationships among teens; what they suggest is an opportunity to talk about delaying sex with new partners, even for those who are already sexually experienced.

[fig.] In the few minutes that remain I want to talk about trends in teen sexual behavior. Most people are aware of the long-term increases in the prevalence of sexual experience among teenagers in this country. In this figure showing data from a survey of adults, you can see how the proportion having sex before 18 increased with successive cohorts of men and women – for men, from about 40% of those born in the 1930s and reaching 18 during the 1950s; to 60% of those born in the 60s and reaching maturity in the 80s. For women the increases over recent decades are even steeper, resulting in a narrowing of the gender gap in teen sexual experience. [fig.] The next figure shows a different statistic- the percent of women 15 to 19 who had had premarital sex at given years since 1970 – but it shows the same long-term trend. However, it also suggests that something might be changing during the 1990s – the estimate for 1995, 50%, is actually a bit lower than that for 1988 – the first reversal we’ve seen. Is this change real? Survey data can’t always tell for sure, because sampling creates the potential for error and unless a measured change is large we can’t always be sure it’s a real change and not just variation in the samples we draw. We are fortunate to have more than one source about trends in teen sex, and when independent sources show the same thing we can be more confident that a change is real. So let’s line up the evidence we have:

[fig.] These data for young men come from the CDC’s school based Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and from a household survey of teenaged males called the National Survey of Adolescent Males. Using different populations and different methods, both show a small decline in the percent ever had sex among teenaged males – from 61 to 54 percent between 1990 and 1995 from one survey, from 60 to 55 percent during 1988-95 in another. The data from the school-based survey also show a decline in recent sexual activity among males. [fig.] The evidence for young women is mixed, however. Data from the school-based survey actually show a small increase among high school girls while data from the National Survey of Family Growth – a household survey – show a small decrease over the same period among girls 15-19. The problem is, none of these changes is large enough to rule out the possibility of its resulting from sampling variability. These data are very new, and need to be further analyzed. But a likely conclusion is that we probably do have a small change in the sexual behavior of teen males, and we may well have at least a leveling off of the long-term increase in the sexual experience of teenaged females. I think this bodes well for abstinence programs, because it suggests that these long-term trends need not go on forever; that things can change.

Go To: Abstinence Education Agenda
Dr. Bachrach's slides (PDF)