May 19, 2006 — -- 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.
STARTER SEX? -- The results do not find support for anecdotal reports that significant numbers of teens are engaging in oral sex as an alternative to intercourse, or see it as a more casual substitute. Instead, seven in 10 teens who've done either have done both. And as many report having had intercourse but not oral sex as report having had oral sex but not intercourse.
Moreover, rates of both oral sex and sexual intercourse are equally low among young teens, contrary to the notion of oral sex as a kind of "starter sex." Instead, more common starter sex appears to be romantic kissing and intimate touching.
Most teens, 53 percent, say oral sex and intercourse are equally intimate behaviors. And while a third of teens say intercourse is "more intimate," this group is no more likely than other teens to say they're postponing intercourse.
MORES -- Broadly, most teens express restrained sexual mores. Six in 10 say it's "not OK" for people their age to "hook up -- that is, to do to sexual things." Four in 10 say hooking up is OK in at least some cases, rising to nearly half of older teens; for some, this is likely because doing "sexual things" doesn't necessarily include oral sex or intercourse.
Indeed, just over three-quarters say specifically that oral sex is "not OK" for people their age, and 80 percent say that about sexual intercourse. Even more -- nine in 10 -- reject all three of these if they're done without an emotional commitment, in other words, "just doing it for the sex."
Some attitudes and behaviors do conflict. Even among teens who say it's "not OK" to hook up sexually, half also say they themselves have kissed romantically, and three in 10 say they've touched someone or been touched in a sexual way. Far fewer, though, have had oral sex or intercourse.
There's a greater dichotomy in teens' personal aims for sexual relationships, and the perceived aims of those around them. Most teens, 72 percent, say they're more interested in a committed sexual relationship with a steady partner than in casual sex with no attachments. But 58 percent think most other teens their age have the opposite interest -- a preference for casual sex.
The survey results underscore the critical role of good information and open communication. Teens are less likely to be sexually active if they've gotten most of their information about sex from parents or teachers, as opposed to friends. Sexual activity is lower among those who say their parents or sex education classes answered most of their questions. And teens who feel comfortable talking with their parents about sex are nearly twice as likely to say their parents know what they're doing sexually.
Eight in 10 teens have had sex ed classes, and eight in 10 of them say such classes answered most of their questions. But, as noted, just half say they've ever talked with their parents about sex. And fewer -- 32 percent -- say they get most of their information about sex from their parents (four in 10 girls, and less than a quarter of the boys).
There's a broad disconnect between parents and teens on this issue. In an ABC News survey of adults, 90 percent of parents said they've spoken with their teenagers about sex. In this survey, only 49 percent of teens say that's so. Clearly, whatever the parents thought was a conversation about sex, the kids didn't hear it that way.