Why the Latest Sex Survey Isn’t Surprising…

By Rob Banaszak on March 14, 2011 in Policy/Advocacy

…and How it Offers an Argument for Comprehensive Sexuality Education

by Julia Cheng, AIDS United Zamora Fellow

On Thursday March 3rd, the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the latest report on data from the National Survey of Family Growth.  Though the report, “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth,”  focuses on many aspects of sexuality among the 13,495 males and females ages 15-44 interviewed in the household population of the U.S., the headlines — “For Young, Sex Falls in Survey” (New York Times), “US Teens, Young Adults ‘Doing it’ Less, Study Says” (Washington Post), “More Young People Scorning Sex, Study Finds” (NPR)—emphasize the increase from 22% to 28% in young individuals ages 15-24 reporting no sexual contact with another person.  Here is why the report is not surprising and why it demonstrates the importance of comprehensive sexuality education and HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness education.

1. Over the last two decades, there has been a steady decline in vaginal sex among teens
While proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs may point to an increase in refraining from sexual behavior as success of abstinence programs, the decline in vaginal sex among teens has persisted whether or not abstinence programs have mainstream traction.  While data surveillance on other types of sexual behavior is relatively new, considering the decline in vaginal sex and the correlation of vaginal sex with other types of sexual activity, it is not surprising that there would also be a decline in all types of sexual behavior among teens.

2. Seventy two percent of individuals 15-24 are having sexual contact
Even if more young people are refraining from sexual behavior, the fact remains that the majority of them are not.  According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) from the CDC, 5.9% of students had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 13, demonstrating the vast differences of sexual behavior among the national population.  Furthermore, both surveys demonstrate that differences exist among social and demographic categories, often correlated with populations disproportionately affected by HIV.  Since sexual behavior among young people runs the gamut, comprehensive sexuality education that is open to the versatile needs of young individuals and their sexuality is necessary.

3. Ninety eight percent of 25-44 year olds have had vaginal intercourse; for most, sexual activity begins before 25
If 98% of 25-44 year olds have had vaginal intercourse (as opposed to all types of sexual contact), for the vast majority of the population refraining from sexual contact means delaying.  Furthermore, in the cohort 25-29, less than 3.4% and 3.8% of women and men respectively have never had sex, suggesting for most, sexual activity begins before 25.  As numerous studies (here, here, here, and here) have demonstrated, sexuality education works best when taught before initiation of sexual activity.  Those who have not be provided with sexuality education before they initiate sex, no matter how long they have delayed, are more likely to have unprotected sex and be uninformed of such risks.  According to the latest CDC surveillance data on HIV/AIDS, there was an increase of HIV diagnoses for persons ages 15-19 and 20-24, with persons aged 20-24 having the highest percentage (15%) and highest rate (36.9 per 100,000) of all diagnoses.  Providing comprehensive sexuality education and HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness information to young adolescents will prepare them for the day when—because almost certainly they will—engage in sexual activity.

4. Abstinence-only-until-marriage only applies to those who marry
Among other reasons, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are problematic because they discriminate.  While certainly many individuals choose not to marry, most LGBT individuals do not have the right to marry legally.  By definition, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs either ignore or actively discourage sexual behavior outside of a legal marriage between a man and a woman.  The role that stigma and discrimination play in HIV health inequities is broadly recognized and is exists as one of the major points in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.  In the National Survey of Family Growth, 6% of men and 12% of women between 25-44 reported having same-sex sexual contact, while differences between racial and ethnic groups in reporting same-sex sexual behavior seem to underscore the role that stigma still plays.  It is ludicrous to believe that ignoring the sexuality of LGBT individuals, especially MSM, can be an effective strategy in preventing HIV.

Abstinence or delaying sexual initiation is a choice that should be included in comprehensive sexuality curriculums, but it should not be the sole choice provided to adolescents who will need the tools to make fully informed decisions.  Instead, we must aim to give young individuals the comprehensive education and tools to achieve healthy sexuality and prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy. .

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