There's a difference in some behaviors among racial groups. Compared with whites, nonwhite teens are more likely to say they've had sexual intercourse, 31 percent versus 14 percent, and to have engaged in intimate touching, 53 percent versus 40 percent. (Nonwhite teens are not significantly more apt to have had oral sex, 23 versus 16 percent). Nonwhites are much more apt than white teens to be very concerned about contracting HIV (69 percent).
Other surveys have had other estimates of the overall incidence of intercourse among teenagers, ranging from 32 to 47 percent. Differences may include the age of the population studied and the data collection methods (self-administered questionnaire or telephone survey, and with or without parental permission). More important than the precise incidence is the global picture -- the exploration of attitudes and behaviors associated with sexual activity among teens.
PRESSURE -- This survey finds, for example, that teens who feel pressure in other aspects of their lives -- especially to take drugs or drink alcohol but also to "fit in" or "look good" are more apt to feel pressure to be sexually active as well. Those with girlfriends or boyfriends are also more likely to feel pressure to have sex.
And teens who feel such pressure are more likely to give in to it: More than a third of those who feel pressure to have sex have done so. Among teens who don't feel pressure to have sex, by contrast, far fewer have -- 14 percent.
Moreover, teens who are currently in a sexual relationship are 15 points less likely than their counterparts to say they're "very satisfied" with their lives overall (47 percent compared with 62 percent). Such results suggest that at least some teen sexual activity can be seen as an expression of broader personal discontent.
Self-esteem also plays some role, at least among girls: Girls with low self-esteem are three times likelier than those with high self-esteem to have done something sexual they didn't want to.
All told, just under a quarter of teens say they feel pressure to be sexually active, and few -- single digits -- say they feel "a lot" of such pressure. Pressure to be sexually active rises with age, from 19 percent among 13- to 14-year-olds to 27 percent among those 15-17; it peaks at 37 percent among 17-year-old boys.
Far more teens feel pressure, and feel it more intensely, in other areas of their lives -- pressure to get good grades (78 percent), to look good (62 percent) and to fit in (44 percent). Lower on the list are pressure to drink alcohol or take drugs (19 and 15 percent, respectively).
As might be expected, associations spike among some behaviors. Among teens who feel pressure to be sexually active, 48 percent also feel pressure to drink alcohol and 43 percent feel pressure to take drugs. Among those who don't feel pressure to be active sexually, far fewer -- six and 10 percent respectively -- feel pressure to drink or take drugs.
Pressure to do any of these -- be sexually active, drink or take drugs -- is lower among teens who have high self-esteem and who are "very satisfied" with their lives.
Teens' own views on sex include a classic double standard, perhaps the kind of perception that better communication from adults might address: Nearly three-quarters of teens say that having sex gives girls a bad reputation. But vastly fewer -- just 28 percent -- say it gives a bad reputation to boys.