Number of teens --primarily boys -- having sex declined in '90s

Birds do it. Bees do it. But fewer teen-age boys are doing it.

The number of 15- to 17-year-old boys having sex in the past decade dropped 8.5 percent, and teens were generally acting more responsibly when it came to sex with rates of pregnancy, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases all falling.

These findings come from a new study by sociologists Barbara Risman of North Carolina State University and Pepper Schwarz of the University of Washington appearing in the premier issue of Context, a new journal published by the American Sociological Association.

The study analyzed data from the Center for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey of more than 10,000 high school students nationally, as well as data from a number of other sources.

Analysis of the CDC data by Risman and Schwartz showed that the number of teens ages 15 to 17 who reported they had engaged in sexual intercourse dropped from 54.1 percent in 1991 to 48.4 percent 1997. Other data showed the teen pregnancy rate fell 14 percent to its lowest point since l975, and the abortion rate for teen-agers decreased 31 percent between 1986 and 1996.

Reasons for the drop in teen-age sex and related behaviors defy easy explanations, but "we are not getting lower rates of sex because high school kids are more conservative," said Schwartz. "And we are not going back to the values of the 1950s as some social commentators have claimed."

The reasons are more complex, but became clearer when Schwartz and Risman broke down the CDC data by gender. They found that while the overall rate for sexual activity among teens dropped 5.7 percent, most of the decrease was attributable to fewer boys having sex when they were 15 to 17 years old. The number of sexually active girls fell more modestly during the same 1991-1997 period, from 50.8 percent to 47.7 percent.

What did change in the 1990s was the context for high school sex. The authors write, "our best informed guess is

Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington

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