"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Understanding Generations X and Y

A Surprising Second Look at Those Teen Sex Statistics

Steve Miller

[Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers For Disease Control]

Ever since your 15-year-old daughter Andrea came home from cheerleading camp, you could tell something was eating at her. Finally, in one of those increasingly rare, candid moments, she blurts out, "I know that when you warn me about the dangers of getting into sex, you're just wanting the best for me. But to listen to my friends talk at camp, you'd think that I'm the only one left on the planet who's not had sex. It's hard enough these days to try to make a stand, but the thought that I'm standing alone really puts on the pressure."

Andrea is just one of many who have fallen for a common misconception that has been floating around schools, Hollywood, and even academic circles for some time: "Everybody's doing it." A recent survey of 1000 students by Seventeen Magazine found 3 out of 4 American teens assuming that most of their peers were having sex. Yet, only 40% of the teens said that they had actually had sexual intercourse. That leaves over 13 million teen virgins!

Combating this misconception is especially important when it comes to teen sex, since some surveys have found that one of Andrea's greatest pressures to start sex early will come from, not love or lust, but because of peer pressure. (Planned Parenthood Survey, 1986)

So she's hurting and vulnerable. And many teens will do almost anything to keep from being an outsider who doesn't fit in. Is there anything you can say that will help? Of course, remind her that by missing out on early sex, she also misses out on wonderful experiences like getting pregnant (Almost 1,000,000 teens get pregnant each year. One in five teens who have sex become pregnant.), acquiring sexually transmitted diseases (Each year, 3,000,000 teens acquire an STD. One in four teens who have sex will get an STD.), and getting a bad reputation ("Even in the 90's?" Absolutely. When USA Today surveyed over 222,000 teens, 70% of the guys and 87% of the girls said that when word gets out that a girl has had sex, it hurts her reputation.[USA Weekend, Sept. 6-8, 1996])

But to ease the pressure that Andrea's peers are putting on her, don't miss the opportunity to open her eyes to a little-known fact. Once we take a closer look at those high school sex stats, we realize that most youth are not doing it. In fact, most youth haven't even done it once. Your daughter's friends, not your daughter, are in the minority. Here are the facts:

Most high school students have not had sex with anyone, not even once. In traditional terms, they are virgins. Surprised? According to the most recent large-scale study (of over 16,000 students) reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 51.6% of all high school students have never had sex. And realize that of the ones who have had sex, many are not currently sexually active. A significant number had to answer "yes" to the question about having sex, although the only sex they had was unwanted or forced. Others regretted their experience and may have committed themselves to say no in the future. So, Andrea, you're in good company. In fact, you're in the majority! And the news gets better?

Seventy-eight percent of 15 year old girls (73% of boys) have never had sex with anyone, not even once. Some people don't realize that younger teens are much less likely to have had sex than older teens. And girls are less likely to have had sex than guys. So the Sex Ed teacher errs who assumes that since almost half of high schoolers have had sex, then almost half of her Sophomore class of girls must have had sex. Someone needs to tell 15-year-old girls that no matter what they hear from their friends, 78% of their female classmates have never had sex. And if you add back to the 78% those whose only sexual experience was involuntary, then about 84% of those her age have never had voluntary sex. (When you get down to 13- year-old girls, about 85% have never had sex. About Ninety-four percent have never had voluntary sex.) So, Andrea, you're not just in the majority for your age group. You're in the vast majority. And there's still more good news?

65% of high school students have not had sex recently (within the three months preceding the survey.) Many of us have been misled by the term "sexually active." We've heard it reported over and over: "Half of teens are sexually active." To me, the term conjures up ideas of large hordes of teens out having sex every chance they get with every willing partner they can find. Since a physically active person is one who gets frequent exercise, you would assume that a sexually active person is one who has frequent sex. Not so. When a study mentions "sexually active," think: "has had sex at least once." Indeed, one study found that 20% of the teens categorized as "sexually active" had experienced sex only once." (1986 Teen Survey) So the 16-year-old girl who was molested as a 12-year-old reluctantly answers "yes" to the survey question, "Have you ever had sexual intercourse?" And although the statistician calmly chalks up one more mark for the "sexually active" category, she doesn't sound very "active" to me. In fact, in my view if we label her "sexually active" then we should call a bedridden nursing home resident "physically active" because he walked to the mailbox three months ago. So, Andrea, of the mere 16% of your age group who have had voluntary sex, even fewer of them do it regularly, as a lifestyle.

Eighty-six percent of high school girls (82% of boys) aren't sleeping around. The perception of large numbers of loose teen girls who hop from bed to bed is largely a myth. Only 14% of high school girls have had four or more sex partners during their entire lifetimes. The figure would be even less if it were narrowed down to Andrea's age group. And remember, Andrea, the longer you wait, the less likely you are to have more sexual partners through the years. And the less partners you have, the less likely you are to get sexually transmitted diseases, some of which have no cure.

So cheer up Andrea! You're in good company! The great majority of students your age have not had sex with anyone, not even once. And of the ones who are doing it, most are not doing it very much. If your cheerleader friends are shooting straight with you about their sexual adventures, then they, not you, are in the minority. But most likely, some of them are just shooting the breeze.

Parents and educators, please help clear up the misinformation that puts unnecessary pressure on our children. While substituting for a girl's Sex Ed class, a parent gave the students some strong reasons to postpone sex. After class, several girls said to her with a great sense of relief, "You mean it's okay to wait?" Apparently, the regular teacher had passed on the message that in today's world, normal kids have sex. The students internalized that postponing sex was not even an option. This is a costly error, especially when we realize that one survey found 84% of teen girls saying that what they most wanted to know about sex was how to say no without hurting the other person's feelings. (Research by Dr. Marion Howard, Atlanta Journal, Jan 18, 1996, p. G1)

Some parents may be thinking, "Hey, my daughter should be willing to stand on her own, even if the whole school is against her!" True. And we should encourage her to make this stand when necessary. But don't forget that a few thousand years ago, a powerful man of God found himself discouraged by his impression that he was the only one left who had not bowed to foreign gods. Rather than rebuke him, God let Elijah in on an apparently little known fact ? 7000 of his countrymen had remained faithful to his God. Similarly today, when our sons and daughters feel alone and discouraged in their moral stands, remind them that, regarding sexual purity, they have more good company (over thirteen million teen virgins) than Elijah.

I don't wish in any way to divert attention from the enormity of the problem we face with the sexual practices of a large number of our youth. If a mother reads this article and breathes a sigh of relief, concluding that she can put off talking to her teen about sex for another few years, I have failed miserably. My purpose is to empower parents with information that your teens desperately need to hear. Statistics show that children of parents who talk to them about sex are less likely to get involved with risky sex. We can make a difference.

Many of our youth are willing to avoid early sex, but they need some encouragement along the way. The little-known fact that most kids are not doing it is powerful ammunition to use with peer-driven teens. Let's spread the word.


Alan Guttmacher Institute = Teen Sex and Pregnancy, Facts in Brief, pp. 1-5, 1998, from their web site (www.agi-usa.org/pubs/fb_teen_sex.html) based on their own research and the peer-reviewed journal, Family Planning Perspectives.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services = "Trends in Sexual Risk Behaviors Among High School Students - United States, 1991-1997," Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Sept. 18, 1998/Vol.47/No.36, pp. 749-752.

"Teen Survey" = "Most Teens' Outlook Is Positive, Survey Finds - The Teen Survey." (Dallas Morning News, Sept. 8, 1986, p. C7)

"Planned Parenthood Survey" = Reported in Psychology Today, May 1989.

Seventeen Magazine, April, 2000


Steve Miller has worked with youth for over 25 years has written two books:  The Contemporary Christian Music Debate and the Leader's Guide to Jesus No Equal. He currently writes global resources for Reach Out Youth Solutions and serves as their webmaster. He wrote Reach Out's online "Legacy Lessons" and maintains their online Illustration Database.