In truth, among all high school students, freshmen to seniors, less than half report ever having sex, a big drop from the early 1990s (though even before the CDC’s December announcement, many experts worried that the trend had stalled in recent years). What accounts for the change? Scientists understand less than they’d like. “It’s what everybody wants to know,” says Dr. John Santelli, an adolescent health expert formerly with the CDC.
For starters, today’s teens make up the first generation born and raised under the specter of AIDS. Pregnancy has also become less socially acceptable in many circles. And, some experts say, access to more information makes for better choices.
Those who aren’t having sex, meanwhile, are more open about their choice. Brooke Johnson, who is active in Texas’s taxpayer-funded Virginity Rules abstinence campaign, says that when she first joined the program, in junior high, some kids teased her. Now, as a senior, “I really don’t get a negative response anymore.”
But she worries about peers who pin their hopes on romances held together largely with sex. “The signal to kids from the media is that you have to find that special someone,” she says. “You can’t let that loneliness push you to the point where you’re, like, The only way he’ll stay around is if I have sex with him.”
That’s where a parent’s voice has power. While it’s normal for children to reject their families as they grow into adulthood, Natasha Ramsey, the Sex, Etc. editor, believes parents “should really try to talk to their child, not necessarily to find out whether their child is having sex but to find out what their child thinks about having sex.” In the end, no matter how much they fidget or roll their eyes, teens want to know someone will find them even when they become hard to reach.
Oral Sex: Hype vs. Facts
The lurid theory that fewer teens are getting pregnant because they’re substituting oral sex for intercourse isn’t backed by facts. “The perception in the media and the culture has been that there’s this explosion of oral sex,” says Columbia University public health expert Dr. John Santelli. Not true, he says. Of those ages 15 to 17, 44 percent of boys and 42 percent of girls say they’ve had oral sex. Data from 1995 (the earliest available) to 2002 show almost no change in the figure for boys. Long-term data for girls doesn’t exist, but Santelli has seen no evidence of an increase.