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Are American Teenagers Getting More Promiscuous?

The news media seem intent on focusing on America’s hookup culture and the end of courtship. Hollywood may also be influencing perceptions. Since 1952, 172 films have featured teenage sex, according to, and a whopping 79 of them were released in the past decade.

The only problem is, it’s just not true.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey takes a nationally representative sample of ninth- to 12-graders who attend public and private schools and asks the students to fill out a questionnaire. Questions on sex form a key part of the survey. Lucky for us, the survey has been asking the same questions every two years for 20 years, so we can get an idea about how teens’ sexual behavior is changing in the U.S.

Since 1991, the percentage of U.S. teens having sex has fallen considerably, according to the survey. But maybe that’s just the one survey. So we looked at another, the National Survey of Family Growth.



This data provides a pretty clear answer to the question in our headline: No. So either the data is wrong, or our perceptions about teenage life are wrong. We suspect it’s a little of both.

On the data front, there’s evidence that teaching teens more about HIV/AIDS has made anal and vaginal sex a less appealing alternative to oral sex. But some teenagers might not think of oral sex when they read “sexual intercourse” in a questionnaire, and that might contribute to underreporting. More speculatively, changing attitudes toward sex might affect teens’ willingness to tell the truth (teenagers in the early 1990s may have been over-reporting, or teenagers now may be underreporting). Also, the fact that so many survey questions are worded with heterosexual habits in mind may also affect teens’ willingness to tick the “yes” box.

What about perceptions? In 2001, 62 percent of American adults said they thought that teenagers first had sex before age 15 (and 15 percent said before 12). Research from the Guttmacher Institute has shown that’s wrong for the majority of teens. And more recent studies on adult perceptions in the U.S. suggest they don’t seem to have changed much — 90 percent of adults think teen pregnancy is more important than “other social and economic problems facing this country.” (Note: Teen pregnancy in the U.S. has halved over the past two decades.)

To unpack those perceptions a bit more, it might be worthwhile to step from quantitative to qualitative research. In a 2010 paper, Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, conducted 41 in-depth interviews with parents. She found that deeply anxious parents exhibited a “binary thinking — constructing their teen children as asexual but other teens as hypersexual.” So while parents might be reassured by the unswerving purity of their sweet darlings, it’s the little devils next door that get them to overestimate the problem.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.


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