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The Bad News About Teen Sex Education Reflects Good Trends

School sex education has declined, but so have teen pregnancies and HIV/AIDS.

Key points

  • School lessons about birth control and HIV/AIDS have fallen 20 percent over the past 24 years.
  • At first glance, that looks like bad news.
  • But here's the good news: teen pregnancies and AIDS threaten teens much less than they did a generation ago.
  • In addition, today's teens are less sexually active and more sexually responsible.

According to a recent report by researchers with the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Guttmacher Institute, only half of American teenagers receive sex education consistent with the minimum goals set by the U.S. Surgeon General. Those goals include delaying first partner sex until at least the late teen years, instruction about all birth control methods, and lessons about preventing sex-related infections, including HIV/AIDS.

The new report was based on nine years of data (2011-2019) from the respected, ongoing, nationally representative National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The study included 3,941 girls and 4,005 boys aged 15 to 19. Sixty percent were non-Hispanic whites. One-quarter were Hispanic. And 14 percent were non-Hispanic and Black. More than half lived in suburbs, one-quarter in cities, and the rest in rural areas. These demographics are not entirely representative, but they’re pretty close, which lends credence to the findings.

Bad News, Thanks to Two Good Trends

The biggest change the report noted was a falling rate of instruction on birth control methods. In 1995, 87 percent of girls and 81 percent of boys reported birth control instruction, mostly in school sex ed classes. But for the period 2015 to 2019, the figures fell to 64 percent for girls and 63 percent for boys. That’s a 20 percent decline in 24 years.

The drop in contraceptive instruction is cause for real concern—and set off alarms in public health circles when the report was published. All teens should learn about all possible ways to prevent pregnancy. But the new figures also reflect significant progress on two issues that were social crises at the end of the twentieth century but appear less problematic today—teen pregnancies and HIV/AIDS.

Teen Pregnancies: Since 1990, teen pregnancies have plummeted from 117 per 1,000 to just 45. That’s a drop of 62 percent in a generation. Now, compared with the rest of the Western world, the U.S. still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates. So, U.S. teen pregnancies are still a problem. But over the past 30 years, our rate has plummeted by almost two-thirds. In addition, sexually active teens are more likely than ever to use contraception, especially condoms. During the 1990s, sexually active teens used birth control, mostly condoms, around half the time. Today, the figure is 86 percent. As a result, American parents and health authorities feel less urgency to promote birth control. This may be short-sighted, but the fact is that the teen pregnancy crisis of the 1980s and 1990s has substantially abated. That’s good news.

HIV/AIDS: AIDS was identified in 1981, and by the late 1980s, the disease threatened all Americans. However, HIV transmission can usually be prevented with condoms. Before AIDS, American parents had never been great promoters of condoms and other contraceptives, but the AIDS crisis threatened their children’s lives and spurred them to action. Despite widespread reluctance to discuss sex, they promoted condoms to their teens, which helped prevent both AIDS transmission and teen pregnancies.

Today, neither AIDS nor teen pregnancies generate many frightening headlines. AIDS has become a manageable chronic illness, and teen pregnancies have dropped to near an all-time low. Consequently, schools feel less pressure to teach kids about contraceptives, especially condoms. I wish all teens received contraceptive education in school aligned with national goals, but it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and the urgency around AIDS has subsided considerably. That's also good news.

Conservatives Increasingly Recognize Reality

The new report also documents a small but noticeable decline in advice to teens to postpone partner sex until their wedding nights. The NSFG data show that during the 2011-2015 period, 73 percent of girls and 70 percent of boys received the wait-until-marriage message. But from 2015 to 2019, only 67 percent of girls and 58 percent of boys received that message, a drop of 6 and 12 percent, respectively.

Unlike contraceptive instruction, most of which takes place in schools, the wait-until-marriage message is usually delivered by parents and churches. Around half of surveyed teens said they attended religious services weekly. Churches still tell teens to wait until their wedding nights, but churches are not pushing that message as stridently as they used to.

Today, only around 3 percent of Americans are virgins when they marry. Almost all Americans—97 percent—have intercourse before their weddings. Compared with the general population, observant religious conservatives are less likely to have sex before marriage, but today, only 20 percent of evangelical Christians are virgins when they marry. Eighty percent have intercourse before they say, “I do.”

Many churches continue to preach virginity until marriage. But some churches have recognized that the large majority of their young people ignore this advice—and have dropped it. They’ve recognized reality and stopped preaching against the inevitable. In my opinion, that’s good news.

Today’s Teens: More Sexually Conservative Than Their Parents

The teen pregnancy rate is not the only sexual measure that’s declined in recent decades. Compared with their parents and grandparents, today’s teens have less sex, and a larger proportion of young adults than ever is celibate. Adults always fret about the younger generation’s sexuality. But despite major gaps in sex education, most of today’s teens face less risk for unwanted pregnancies and sexual infections than their parents did a generation ago. A team led by San Diego State University researchers surveyed 26,707 Americans, some born in the 1960s and ’70s (age 48 to 64 today) and others born in the ’80s and ’90s (25 to 44 today). The latter reported significantly less partner sex.

When the recent NSFG report was released, sex and health educators decried falling rates of contraceptive education. I share their concerns. All teens should receive extensive instruction on the prevention of pregnancy and sexual infections. But the reason this instruction has fallen is good news. Compared with a generation ago, teens are much less threatened by AIDS and unplanned pregnancies.


Boonstra, H. “Teen Pregnancy: Trends and Lessons Learned,” Guttmacher Policy Review (2002)

Finer, L.B. and M.R.Zolna. “Declines in Unintended Pregnancy in the United States: 2008-2011,” New England Journal of Medicine (2016) 374:843.

Finer, LB. “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” Publisc Health Reports (2007) 122:73 doi: 10.1177/003335490712200110.

Lindberg, LD and LM Kantor. “Adolescents’ Receipt of Sex Education in a Nationally Representative Sample, 2011-2019,” Journal of Adolescent Health (2022) 70:290. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.08.027.

Lindberg, L. et al. “Understanding the Decline in Adolescent Fertility in the United States, 2007-2012,” Journal of Adolescent Health (2016) 59:577.

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