New Findings about Americans' Sexual Experiences

Young adults are waiting longer to become sexually active

Posted Mar 17, 2011

One topic that has been gaining some recent attention in the news the possibility that teenagers and young adults are having less sex (at least in 2006-2008) than they did before, in 2002. The results of a survey recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (National Health Statistics Report) has led to the conclusion that American teenagers and those in their early 20s are waiting longer to become sexually active. I mention this report in my blog from last week here - and as promised, here are some thoughts.

It's important to first clarify whom they included in their study, and how they did the research. Because you can read through the report on your own if you wish, here I provide only a few key points.

• The researchers actually tested 15-44 year olds, during 2006-2008.
• Participants were sampled by about 100 female interviewers at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, and were paid $40 for their efforts. Women's interviews were about 80 minutes, while men's were 60 minutes.
• The response rate (meaning those that agreed to participate) was 76% for women, 73% for men.
• And this one is key!! -- In this report, the term "intercourse" refers to heterosexual vaginal intercourse. The terms "sex" or "sexual contact" refer to all types of sexual activity, including vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and anal sex, either with opposite-sex or same-sex partners.

Overall the report uncovers many interesting facts. It's important to note though that the results from the 2006-2008 period are essentially the same as those from 2002, especially for the 25-44 year olds for whom:

• 98% of females and 97% of males have ever had vaginal intercourse
• 89% of females and 90% of males ever had oral sex with an opposite-sex partner
• 36% of females and 44% of males ever had anal sex with an opposite-sex partner
• Twice as many women reported any same-sex contact in their lifetimes compared with men (13% of women and 5.2% of men).

Also for this age group (25-44), for women:

• 1.6% never had any form of sexual activity with a male partner
• 6.6% have had sex with a male but not in the past year
• 82% had 1 partner in the past year
• Having 1 partner in the past 12 months was more common at older ages, presumably because more of these women are married.
• Having 1 partner in the past year was significantly more common among married (97%) or cohabiting (86%) women than those in other groups
• No significant difference was seen by educational attainment in the percentages reporting 1 partner in the past year
• Women 22-44 with less than a high school diploma were nearly twice as likely (13%) to have had 2 or more partners in the past 12 months as women with a Bachelor's degree or higher (7%).

And for men:
• 2.3% had never had sexual contact with a female
• 6.3% had sex in their lifetime but not in the past year
• 75% reported having 1 partner in the past year, lower than women and likely due to the higher percentages of men reporting higher numbers of partners overall for the past year.

With respect to the actual number of partners (in case that interests some readers):

• The results from 2006-2008 show little change since the 2002 survey
• Women 15-44, the median number of male partners is 3.2, in 2002 it was 3.3
• Men 15-44, the median number of female partners is 5.1, in 2002 it was 5.6
• In 2002, 23% of men and 9% of women reported 15 or more partners in their lifetimes, and in 2006-2008, it was 21% of men and 8% of women.

Education also appears to influence the type of sexual activity, which has been found previously in the sexuality literature. More education leads to more oral sex. Among those 25-44, for activity with someone of the opposite sex:

• Education has minimal influence on rates of anal sex
• For women and men, oral sex was reported more often by those with bachelor's degrees or higher: (91% of women and 90% of men) than those with no high school diploma or GED (75% of women and 83% of men).

Interestingly, with respect to same sex activity:

• Men showed no significant differences in activity by educational attainment
• Women with Bachelor's degrees or higher were less likely to report same-sex sexual behavior than women in the other education categories.

Now, let's get to the issue that attracted considerable attention - the sexual behaviour of young adults, 15-24 years of age. The report presents the following:

• 27% of 15 year old boys and 23% of 15 year old girls have ever had oral sex with an opposite-sex partner
• For ages 18-19, 70% of boys and 63% of girls have ever had oral sex with an opposite-sex partner
• Among 15-17 year olds, 6.2% of boys and 7.0% of girls have had anal sex with an opposite-sex partner
• 6.8% of males and 4.9% of females have had oral sex but no vaginal intercourse
• Any same-sex sexual behavior was reported by nearly 2% of boys and 10% of girls 15-17

And, the finding that attracted attention:

• In 2006-2008, 27% of males and 29% of females have had no sexual contact with another person; in 2002 it was 22% of males and females

I think what's also noteworthy is this finding: Among those who have had vaginal intercourse, older age at first intercourse was associated with higher percentages having had oral sex first: 41% of young people 15-24 who had first vaginal intercourse at age 17 or younger had oral sex before first vaginal intercourse, compared with 70% of those who had first intercourse at age 20 or older. (This question was added in 2007, so there is less data on it. The question was: "Thinking back to when you had oral sex with a male for the first time, was it before, after, or on the same occasion as your first vaginal intercourse with a male?").

In other words, those who are a little older when they have their first vaginal intercourse are more likely to have had oral sex first.

But I've digressed from the main point concerning the decrease in young adults' sexual behaviour.

As reported by one source (the Telegram), the fact that the trend began in the late 1980s seems to undermine the idea that abstinence-only sex education - heavily emphasized during the 2001-2009 presidency of George W. Bush - was all that effective. But, as covered by the Telegram, it's possible that the comprehensive sexual education programs in school added to the message of abstinence. So, maybe the reason for the reduction is that today's American youth are well educated about the potential for diseases and infections, and pregnancy.

Another explanation hinted at in the Telegram's column was that youth are simply too busy. Are today's adolescents and young adults so focused on achievement that they cannot make time for the relationships in which to have sexual behaviour? Perhaps it is a shift in sexual standards - one expert in the column suspected that males might be the culprit in that they are not making time to form relationships within which to have sex.

I first wonder if the results are accurate (and I note there that that is a big question - although the data are compelling, I do have some lingering concerns that they might not truly reflect general trends of the overall young American population). However, if they are, then I think what they directly point to is the idea of the extended adolescence of our young people. More and more young adults live with their parents than before, and evidence suggests that they are being treated by their parent(s) as children, not as the adults they have become. I'm not ruling out that sexual education programs may be effective - I certainly hope they are, as I value the importance of being informed. However, I think there simply must be something else going on. The problem is trying to figure out just what that "something" is.

But, isn't this ironic, given that media sexualizes young people more than ever? How is it that when we see so much sex in the media (particularly younger adults having sex) that rates are decreasing?

This situation reminds me of the arguments from years ago on the influence of violence on television, and whether it was responsible for increasing aggression. Some academics claimed there was no causal influence (e.g., Freedman, 1984), while others claimed they found direct evidence (e.g., Eron, Huesmann, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1972).

I think these results, if accurate, do show us that just as more recent work on the effect of violence on television has minimal impact on aggression, we might also see that the highly sexualized images we see on television do not necessarily cause young adults to behave sexually. And, as the results show, adults 25-44 tend to be having consistent levels of sex, at least across the short-term.


Eron, L. D., Huesmann, L. R., Lefkowitz, M. M., & Walder, L. O. (1972). Does television violence cause aggression? American Psychologist, 253-263.

Freedman, J. L. (1984). Effect of television violence on aggressiveness. Psychological Bulletin, 96(2), 227-246.