Trend to Active Sex Life for Early Teens

An analysis of national studies on teen-age women's sexual activity over the last 20 years has found that the '80s have brought a leveling off of the teen sexual revolution that occurred in the 1970s. However, there is a disturbing trend toward having sex at earlier ages and the proportion of young teens (those 16 and under) who become sexually active is continuing to grow.

The trend is alarming because younger teens are far less likely than girls in their late teens to use contraception. According to the National Survey of Family Growth conducted in 1982, more than half of young women who had their first sexual experience at age 18 or 19 started using a contraceptive immediately. But of girls who started having sex at 15 or younger, only 23% began contraceptive use within the first month of their sexual activity, and almost half delayed contraceptive use for more than a year.

The result will almost certainly be an increase in abortions, the researchers said, estimating that if current rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion continue, almost half of today's teen-agers will have had an abortion by the time they reach age 45.

The figures come from the federal National Surveys of Young Women conducted in 1971, 1979 and the 1982 National Survey of Family Growth, and were analyzed by Sandra L. Hofferth and Wendy Baldwin of the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Joan Kahn, a research associate at the Population Center at the University of North Carolina. Their report was published in the professional journal Family Planning Perspectives.

Should anyone doubt it, their analysis of the figures confirms that indeed there was a sexual revolution among teens in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Among women 15 to 19 living in metropolitan areas, the proportion who reported premarital sexual activity rose from just under a third in 1971 to almost half by the end of the decade.

While the sexual revolution affected Americans of all ages, the consequences were most severe for teen-agers, the researchers wrote. Along with the "filtering down" of sexual behavior to younger and younger girls, fewer teen-agers married than in past decades, so sexual activity and pregnancy among young women has been primarily non-marital or premarital.

This pattern of sexual activity at young ages without contraception and a decreasing rate of marriage are reflected in a different set of figures, national fertility data for 1984 recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Fertility rates for young American women aged 15 to 24 are at record lows--except for unmarried teens. The fertility rate (given as number of live births per 1,000 women) for young women 15 to 24 is at an all-time low, 107.3 births per thousand. Among all teen-agers 15 to 19 the birthrate has declined by 25% since 1970 and is at its lowest level since 1940.

However, the rates of births to unmarried teen-agers have been steadily increasing since 1970--from 22.4 births per thousand in 1970 to 30.2 in 1984.

The researchers' predictions about future increases in abortion are based on statistics from the 1982 National Survey of Family Growth and a national survey of abortion providers conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood. In 1982 it was estimated that 13.7% of teens 15 to 19 had had an abortion. The projection is that 18% of today's teens will have had an abortion by age 20; 41% will have had an abortion by age 30 and 46% by age 45.

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