Confronted with a jumble of conflicting messages, mores and impulses, significant numbers of American teenagers are experimenting with sex, and as they get older they graduate from romantic kissing to intimate touching, oral sex and intercourse.
While most are restrained in their attitudes and behavior, millions of teenagers are sexually active, with many millions more poised at the doorstep of their sexual lives.
Are they prepared?
This ABC News poll of 13- to 17-year-olds, conducted in summer 2004, provides some reassuring answers -- and others that are cause for alarm. It finds that the vast majority of teens reject casual sex.
But the survey also found plenty of risky behavior: Among teens who've had sexual intercourse, nearly one in four say they or their partner don't always use a condom, and 14 percent don't always use any reliable birth control. Two-thirds of them have had more than one sex partner. Seven in 10 say their first time was unplanned.
Communication is a critical tool in helping teens navigate this minefield -- but only half of sexually active teens say they've ever discussed sex with their parents. Meanwhile many teens are being bombarded with sexual messages: More than half, especially girls, say there's too much sex on TV. More than half get pornographic e-mail spam at least occasionally. Nearly three in 10 have visited porn Web sites, rising to 51 percent for older teen boys. And half of 17-year-olds, girls and boys alike, have looked at online sex chats.
More than a fifth of all teenagers -- including a quarter of older teens, and about three in 10 older girls -- say they've been in a relationship where "things were moving too fast sexually." And 12 percent of teens, one in eight, say they've done something sexual they didn't really want to do -- mainly because they were carried away, talked into it or too shy or embarrassed to say no. (Fewer say they were forced, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.)
Many, in retrospect, acted too soon: Among those who've had sex, half (especially girls) say they wish they'd waited longer.
Among teens who have not had sex, meanwhile, just over half are waiting, but that leaves a huge number -- 45 percent -- who say instead that "it just hasn't happened yet." For many of them, since sexual activity soars among older teens, it likely will before long.
WHAT and WHY? -- What are teens thinking and doing sexually, and why? While government studies show declining rates of sexual intercourse and pregnancy among teenagers, efforts to get the full picture of teen sexuality have been woefully inadequate. Few surveys have delved into noncoital behavior -- kissing, intimate touching and oral sex -- that are part of many adolescents' lives, or the broader attitudes that inform this behavior.
Among additional results, this survey explores the role of factors that seem to contribute to teens having or not having sex -- not just age but also information, social pressures, parents, dating and religious observance. It looks at concerns about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. And it examines underlying emotional associations with sex -- who calls it "scary," who calls it "fun" or "exciting," and how these change with time.