Why Are High School Students Having Less Sex?

For years, adults have been urging teenagers not to have sex. It seems their prayers have now been answered, as fewer high schoolers are romping in the sheets than ever before. 

The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday showed a drop in both the number of high school-age students who said they had ever had sex, and those who had four or more sexual partners.

Researchers analyzed responses to the biannual survey from between 2007 and 2017. Since 1991, some 4.4 million high school students have answered questions on behavior that put their health most at risk, in more than 1,900 separate surveys.

In the decade following 2007, the number of students who had ever had sex fell from almost 48 percent to 39.5 percent. And the number of high schoolers who had four or more sexual partners in 2017 scraped 10 percent, dropping from almost 15 percent in 2007. Worryingly, however, the numbers of students using condoms also reduced, from 61.5 percent in 2007 to 53.8 percent in 2017. During the same period, high school students were less likely to take drugs, but they were also more likely to have felt bullied and suicidal. 

teenager-drink-stock Today’s teenagers are having less sex than previous generations, research shows. In the decade following 2007, the number of students who had ever had sex fell from almost 48 percent to 39.5 percent. Getty Images

Still, overall the CDC said the results painted a “promising picture about the drug and sexual behaviors” of high school students.

Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention said in a statement: “Today’s youth are making better decisions about their health than just a decade ago.”

So what is putting high school students off having sex? In short, it’s not entirely clear. What we do know, said Jesseca Boyer, senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual and reproductive health, is that abstinence programs are not responsible. 

“Decades of research shows this approach has no impact on young people delaying sex,” she told Newsweek.

Neither is a fear of catching AIDS, said Dr. Kathy Woodward-Murray, of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health at Children’s National Health System, in Washington, D.C. 

Perhaps high school students are too glued to social media to get intimate? That theory alone is too simplistic, and there is not enough evidence to prove it, but the fact most teenagers in the U.S. have a smartphone is also unlikely to be insignificant. 

"Social media and technology use has probably added a significant component to the decline," surmised Woodward-Murray.

Dr. Holly Richmond, a sex therapist with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, argues teenagers are probably still having sex—just not in real life.

"Social media and technology use most likely have an effect on how much person to person sex teens are having for the simple reason that they are spending more time online and have less face time with each other,” she told Newsweek. “But, they are having more online sex, like sexting and Skype sex, which is still having sex, it’s just facilitated through a different lens than teen sex was 10 or 20 years ago."

Others point to the “life-history theory” to explain the overall trend of teens having less sex. As the average person’s lifespan climbs factors in our development—including when we have sex—are postponed.

Last fall, a study published in the journal Child Development investigated how often 13 to 19 year olds engaged in behaviors deemed appropriate for adults, from having sex to drinking, and holding down a job and driving. Teenagers were surveyed over the 40 year period following 1976, and were found to adopt most adult behaviors later in life—including having sex. In fact, the lives of today's 18-year-olds are more akin to those of 15-year-olds a decade ago. 

"Teens are safer and healthier than they’ve ever been, and that’s obviously a very good thing," Jean Twenge, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, told Time last year.

What the experts are clear on, however, is sex education for teenagers is inadequate.

When teens do have sex, it is influenced by “unprotected and multi-partnered” porn which children are exposed to from ages 9 to 10, argued Richmond.

“Teens are not taught what ‘real’ sex is," she said. “Teens think this [porn] is what sex is supposed to be, unprotected and multipartnered. If we had sexuality educators in schools talking about the difference between porn sex and real sex, and why condoms are important, I believe the risks would be reduced.”

“We have got to do a better job providing sex-positive, pleasure focused sex education,” chimed Eric Garrison, a sexologist at the University of William and Mary. He told Newsweek: “We are sexual beings from womb to tomb, and we need healthful sex education around the subjects from womb to tomb.

"[Education on] consent—it doesn't have to be about sex—can start in primary school and sexual pleasure can be taught in nursing homes and senior centers." 

And social media could be an important way to get healthy sex messages across, said Woodward-Murray. "We know many online text interventions exist for health behaviors (dieting/obesity/even suicide prevention), and we see many adolescents with cellphones in our clinics, so we know anecdotally that more people are getting their information in those ways." 

Because in the end, while we can't yet be sure why teenagers are having less sex, we know they eventually will. And when they do the onus lies with adults to ensure they do it safely and happily. 

"One thing we know from longitudinal adolescent health study is that adolescents who are well connected to positive adults have the lowest risks," she said. "As we spend more time on our technology devices and less time socially connecting with kids, it will be interesting to see how that changes risk behavior over the next 20 years." 

After all, it was adults who taught teens to retreat into a digital existence—and it's up to us to show them how to behave when they do eventually decide to pop the cherry.