What's Driving the Declines?
On one level, the answer seems simple: Since teenage abortion rates have also declined since the early 1990s, pregnancy and birthrates have fallen either because fewer teens are having sex or because more adolescents are using contraceptives. Recent survey data suggest that the real answer may be both.
According to two national surveys, fewer teenagers are having sex. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) finds that the proportion of adolescent females reporting that they had ever had sexual intercourse declined from 53% to 50% between 1988 and 1995, reversing a steady increase in sexual activity in the previous two decades. More recent data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that the proportion of high school students who reported having had sexual intercourse decreased 11% between 1991 and 1997. Forty-eight percent of female students reported having had sex in 1997, compared with 51% in 1991. Among adolescent males, the proportion who had ever had sex dropped from 57% in 1991 to 49% in 1997.
At the same time, according to the NSFG, contraceptive use at first intercourse rose to 78% among females aged 15-19 in 1995, from 65% in the late 1980s and 48% in the early 1980s. However, while more than 80% of non-Hispanic white teens and nearly three-quarters of black teens reported using a method at first intercourse, only 53% of Hispanic teens said they did so. The large majority of teens who use a method the first time they have sex rely on condoms: Sixty-six percent of female teens reported in 1995 that they and their partner used condoms at first intercourse, compared with 48% in 1988 and 23% in 1982.
Researchers say the recent trends in sexual activity and contraceptive use are the result of a confluence of factors, including greater emphasis on abstinence, more conservative attitudes about sex, fear of AIDS, the popularity of the long-lasting methods, such as the contraceptive implant (Norplant®) and the injectable (Depo Provera®), and even the economy.