The media has been all over a new study from the Centers for Disease Control about the surprisingly large numbers of teens and young adults who haven't had sex. Now, if you read this blog regularly, this fact may not come as quite the shock it is to the rest of the world. There are a lot of people who delay sexual activity until college and beyond–some because of religious convictions, others because of social anxiety or past negative experiences, and others because they simply haven't met the right person yet.
According to the study, 27% of men and 29% of women ages 15 to 24 say they've never had a sexual encounter, which was defined as anal, oral or vaginal sex. I think it's somewhat more meaningful, and again less shocking, if you look at the breakdown by age*, like in this USA Today chart (left).
What I find especially interesting is the methodology used to gather data, given the very real issues around honest reporting of sexual behavior. NPR describes the process:
To increase the odds that the study subjects will tell the truth about their sex lives, the surveyors are always women, who visit households chosen to represent the 124 million Americans ages 15 to 44. "The more sensitive the questions, the more both sexes only want to talk to a woman," Anjani Chandra, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics and the report's lead author, told Shots. Those women are usually in their 40s, she says; a nice non-threatening age.
When it's time for the most delicate questions, the interviewer hands her laptop to the subject, who then listens to the questions on headphones. "The respondent can enter her answers directly into the computer," Chandra says. The interviewer never knows the answer — and neither does Mom, who may be listening from the kitchen.
Various reasons are being offered for this steady drop in sexual activity. While abstinence education may be a contributing factor, the decline started in the late 80s, more than a decade before the Bush administration pushed abstinence-only programs into overdrive.
It also bears mentioning that comprehensive sex education programs teach abstinence along with safer sex practices, which are more important now than ever. The CDC conducted this survey to help them address soaring STD and HIV rates, since half of the infections occur in the people 15-24. Which means that the young people who are having penetrative sex are still doing it in very high-risk ways.
*For adults 25-44, the study reports that 1.6% of women and 2.3% of men have not had any sexual activity. The full report, with extensive data tables is can be downloaded from the National Survey of Family Growth.