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.
The source of information matters: Teens who say they've gotten most of their information about sex from friends rather than from teachers or parents, are two to three times likelier to engage in sexual touching, oral sex and sexual intercourse.
A comfort level is important. Among teens who've discussed sex with their parents, more than eight in 10 say they're comfortable doing so, and nearly nine in 10 say the discussion answered most of their questions. But among those who haven't spoken with their parents about sex, only about half say they'd be comfortable doing so.
As noted, the value to parents of developing that comfort and dialogue is clear: Among sexually active teens, 76 percent of those who talk with their parents about sex say their parents know at least something (if not everything) about their sexual activity. But among those who don't talk, just 43 percent say their parents know anything at all about what they're up to.
Communication from parents might counter other, competing messages and hazards. As noted, more than half of teens say they get at least occasional e-mail spam or pop-up ads about sex or pornographic Web sites; nearly a quarter get them "very often."
Nearly three in 10 have visited porn Web sites, rising to 51 percent of boys ages 15 to 17. A third have visited an Internet chat room where sex was being discussed -- rising to half of 17-year-olds (boys and girls alike). Among teens who've visited such sites, 9 percent, nearly one in 10, say they've participated in online sex chats.
There's clearly a significant level of sexual activity among teens. Seventy percent say "most" or "a lot" of the teenagers they know engage in romantic kissing; 46 percent in intimate touching; 24 percent in oral sex; and 27 percent in sexual intercourse. And these numbers are higher among older teens, age 15 to 17.
In terms of their own activity, 63 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds say they've kissed romantically, rising to 73 percent of those 15 and up. Forty-four percent report sexual touching; among older teens, it's 55 percent. Nineteen percent of all teens, and 27 percent of older teens, say they've had oral sex. As many have had sexual intercourse.
These are not all ongoing activities: Fifteen percent of all teens, and 20 percent of older teens, say they're "currently involved" in a sexual relationship.
All these sexual activities rise with age -- they're lowest by far at age 13, rising sharply at age 14, and then jumping again particularly at age 17.
Among 13-year-olds, for example, 36 percent have kissed romantically; at 14 it shoots up to 61 percent, and among 17-year-olds it's 84 percent. Fifteen percent of 13-year-olds report sexual touching; that more than doubles to 38 percent of 14-year-olds, then jumps to 63 percent of 17-year-olds.
The biggest jumps in oral sex and intercourse occur later, from ages 16 to 17. About a quarter of 16-year-olds say they've had oral sex, and 21 percent say they've had sexual intercourse -- sizable numbers in themselves but ones that spike to 42 and 43 percent among 17-year-olds.
While teens who've had intercourse report an average of four partners, that's boosted by a few who report particularly high numbers of partners (as many as 53). The median -- half are higher, half lower -- is two partners.
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.
Strikingly, girls and boys alike share this stereotypical view. Indeed, girls are especially apt to say that having sex gives girls a bad reputation -- and to say that it gives boys a good reputation. Among older girls in particular, 47 percent say having sex gives boys a good reputation.
EMOTIONS -- Teens express conflicting emotional associations on the subject of sex, with deep differences between girls and boys. The two most cited are "natural" and "dangerous," but with a big spike among older teens, particularly older boys, who also call it "exciting" and "fun."
Sixty-two percent of girls call sex "scary"; that drops to 28 percent of boys. Just over a quarter of young girls call sex "fun"; that doubles to 54 percent of older girls, and it's 72 percent among older boys. Similarly, 32 percent of younger girls call sex "exciting"; it's 60 percent among older girls, and 78 percent among older boys. About four in 10 girls, and three in 10 boys, call sex "sinful." About a third of girls call it "embarrassing"; that drops to 17 percent of boys. Eighty-three percent of girls, and 69 percent of boys, call it "dangerous."
These views are associated with behavior. Sexual activity, from kissing to touching to oral sex to intercourse, is much more prevalent among teens who call such activities "fun" and "exciting," and much less prevalent among those who call it "scary," "sinful," "embarrassing" or "dangerous." And teens who are sexually active are much more likely to call sex fun and exciting.
There's also a very striking difference between girls and boys in their focus on sex. While 18 percent of teenage girls think about sex at least once a day, that jumps to 48 percent among boys -- and 66 percent among 17-year-old boys. (This difference only grows between adult men and women.) And thinking about it is correlated with doing it.
WHEN, WHERE -- On average, teens who've had sexual intercourse (girls and boys alike) say it first was at age 15. Twenty percent report that it occurred at age 13 or younger, and the youngest reported in this survey is age eight. Fifty-one percent of those who've had intercourse wish they'd waited longer; as noted, especially girls. (The other half, though, say it was about the right age.)
Drugs and alcohol do not appear to be very strong factors in first-time intercourse; 88 percent say they were not using either. On oral sex, the average first-time age also is 15, with 22 percent at age 13 or younger, and a youngest age of seven -- all about the same as for first-time intercourse.
Teens report that most of their sexual activity occurs at a home: Twenty-eight percent at their own home, 33 percent at someone else's home. Specifically among teens who've had oral sex or sexual intercourse, the numbers are higher: four in 10 at their own home, another four in 10 at someone else's home.
Clearly, age is the strongest factor in teen sexual activity, but there are others. Despite the notion of prevalent casual sex and an aversion to dating, nearly four in 10 teens have a boy- or girlfriend, and sexual activity spikes in this group.
Among teens with a current girl- or boyfriend, 30 percent say it's a sexual relationship (rising to 39 percent of older teens). By contrast, among teens who don't have a girl- or boyfriend, far fewer -- six percent -- are currently sexually active.
Similarly, among those with a current girl- or boyfriend, nearly nine in 10 have kissed romantically, six in 10 have done sexual touching, and a third have had both oral sex and intercourse -- all double or triple the rates among those with no boy- or girlfriend.
Teens with a boy- or girlfriend say they've been in the relationship for an average of seven months -- quite a long while, given their ages -- and three in 10 say it's been 10 months or more. The longer-term the relationship, the likelier there's sexual activity.
Sexual activity, as noted, also is much higher among teens who feel pressure to have sex and who feel pressure in other areas, who get their sexual information from friends rather than from adults, and whose sex ed classes or talks with parents haven't answered their questions about sex.
Sexual activity also is higher among teens who don't live with both their parents; it may be that supervision is more easily accomplished in traditional two-parent households.
RELIGION -- Religious observance plays a role as well: Teens who attend church weekly are half as likely to have had intercourse or oral sex as those who rarely go. (However, churchgoing teens are only moderately less likely to have engaged in romantic kissing or intimate touching.) Similarly, sexual activity is higher among the 14 percent of teens who say they have no religion.
In addition to providing a moral framework, religious belief and observance may be indicators of broader parental intervention. For example, teens who have a religion, and who attend church weekly, are more likely than their opposites to have discussed sex with a parent.
Religion is involved in attitudes as well as behaviors; those who have no religion, or rarely if ever attend church, are substantially more likely to say it's OK for teens to hook up sexually. Among teens who attend church weekly, 16 percent hold this view; among those who rarely if ever attend church, by contrast, 43 percent say it's OK to hook up; and among those with no religion, it's 49 percent.
Frequent churchgoing teens, and especially evangelical Protestant teens, also are more apt to say they're waiting to have sex, not that it just hasn't happened; and also more apt to say, specifically, that they're waiting until they're married.
WAITING -- Overall, among teens who haven't had intercourse, 53 percent say they're waiting, and 31 percent say they're waiting specifically until they're married. (The rest are waiting until they're older, or in a committed relationship.) Sixty-three percent of girls are waiting, compared with 43 percent of boys. Most boys, 56 percent, say instead that "it just hasn't happened yet."
Fifty-nine percent of teens say they have friends who've made a definite decision not to have intercourse before marriage, known as an "abstinence pledge." That rises to 75 percent of teens who themselves are waiting for marriage, a sign of reinforcing or peer-group behavior.
UNWANTED -- As mentioned, 12 percent of teens say they've done something sexual they didn't want to (13 percent of girls, but also 10 percent of boys). Among this group, 58 percent say they were carried away, 46 percent say they were too shy or embarrassed to say no, and 45 percent say they were talked into it. (Multiple answers were taken.)
About a third say it was because they wanted their partner to like them; a quarter, because other teens are doing it; a quarter because they were forced, and 14 percent because they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
It adds perspective to compute these numbers against the entire teen population, rather than just among those who did something sexually they didn't really want to. Among all teens, 3 percent say they've been forced to do something sexual they didn't want to do; and 2 percent say they had sexual activity they didn't want to when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
STDS and PREGNANCY -- There are some knowledge gaps among teens, although the majority has gotten two key messages. Eighty percent are aware that it's possible to get a sexually transmitted disease via oral sex. And 63 percent are aware that using a condom is an effective way of preventing HIV; however, 32 percent believe this is not the case. (Awareness of condom use is higher, 83 percent, among teens who've had sex.)
A quarter of teens, and a third of older teens, personally know someone who has a sexually transmitted disease; and more --56 percent of all teens, and 70 percent of older teens -- personally know someone their age who's gotten pregnant.
Nearly two-thirds of teens are concerned that they themselves might contract AIDS or another STD; 44 percent are "very concerned." And 59 percent are concerned that they might get pregnant or get someone else pregnant, 47 percent "very concerned" -- equally high among girls and boys alike.
These concerns peak among teens who've had intercourse: Seventy-nine percent are concerned about pregnancy.
Seventy-seven percent of teens who have had intercourse say they or their partner always use a condom, but that means 23 percent don't. Half say they or their partner always use a birth control drug or device such as the pill, the patch or a diaphragm. As noted above, 14 percent don't always do at least one of these -- use a condom, or practice other reliable birth control methods.
METHODOLOGY -- The ABC News survey was conducted by telephone Aug. 2-9, 2004, among a random national sample of 1,001 13- to 17-year-olds. The results have a 3.5-point error margin for all respondents; as in any poll, sampling error is higher for subgroups. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
This poll was conducted after a review of previous surveys on sexual attitudes and behaviors among teenagers. Only female interviewers were used. Teens who answered the phone were interviewed directly; parents who answered were told that the poll dealt with teens' attitudes and behaviors, and that some of the questions were personal in nature. Those who asked were read a sampling of questions, most of which touched upon sexual attitudes and knowledge. Parents or teens with questions or concerns about the survey were invited to call a toll-free number created for that purpose. None did.
To see complete results of this poll, Click Here.