Survey Provides Additional Insight About Teen Sexual Health, Behaviors, and Attitudes

Summary

NBC News and People Magazine commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,000 young teenagers (ages13-16) and their parents. The survey, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI), asked teens about their sexual health, behavior, and attitudes and asked parents for their views on the sexual lives of today's teens.

Issues Teens Face

The survey shows that parents and teens have somewhat different opinions of the pressures teens' face and the attitudes they have about sex.

  • 85% of parents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement "there is a lot of pressure on teenagers to have sex by a certain age," compared with compared with 66% of teens.
  • 72% of parents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement "waiting to have sex is a nice idea but not many teens really do wait," compared with 65% of teens.
  • 47% of parents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement "for teens oral sex is not as big a deal as sexual intercourse," compared with 75% of teens.

Parent-Teen Communication

The survey also shows that parents and teens have wildly different estimations of how often they have discussed sexuality.

  • 42% of parents said they talked to their teenager about sex and sexual relationships "very often," 43% said they talked "somewhat often," 12% said "not too often," and 2% said "never."
  • In contrast, 11% of teens said they talked to their parents about sex and sexual relationships "very often," 30% said they talked "somewhat often," 40% said "not too often," and 18% said "never."

Teen Sexual Behavior

The survey confirms that teens are engaging in a wide range of sexual behavior from kissing to sexual intercourse.

  • 58% of all teens (ages 13-16) reported having ever "kissed someone romantically," 27% reported having ever "been with someone in an intimate or romantic way," 21% reported having ever "touched someone's genitals or private parts," 13% reported having ever engaged in sexual intercourse, and 12% of teens reported having ever engaged in oral sex.
  • 72% of older teens (ages 15-16) reported having ever "kissed someone romantically," 41% reported having ever "been with someone in an intimate or romantic way," 37% reported having ever "touched someone's genitals or private parts," 21% reported having ever engaged in sexual intercourse, and 19% of teens reported having ever engaged in oral sex.
  • 96% of teens who have had oral sex say they have never been to an "oral sex party."
  • Among the 12% of teens who reported having engaged in oral sex, 1% reported first having had oral sex at age 11, 8% at age 12, 19% at age 13, 22% at age 14, 29% at age 15, and 16% at age 16.
  • Among teens 13% who reported having engaged in sexual intercourse, 1% reported first having had oral sex at age 10, 1% at age 11, 7% at age 12, 15% at age 13, 27% at age 14, 28% at age 15, and 18% at age 16.

Parents' Perception of Teen Sexual Behavior

When asked whether their teens' have engaged in sexual behavior, many parents seem to underestimate.

  • When asked about their own child, 83% of parents believed that their teenager had not engaged in sexual activity beyond kissing.

Teens' Use of Contraception and Disease Prevention

The survey shows that many teens are not protecting themselves from pregnancy or STDs.

  • 30% of teens who have had oral sex reported "always" using "protection such as a condom" during oral sex, 14% reported using protection "most of the time," 13% "some of the time," and 42% reported "never" using protection during oral sex.
  • 36% of teens who have had sexual intercourse reported using birth control every time they have sex, 6% reported using birth control "almost every time," 8% reported using it "most of time," 7% reported "only sometimes," 1% reported "hardly ever," and 40% reported "never" using birth control.

Teens' Reasons for Sexual Decision-making

The survey shows that many different factors, from parent's reaction to curiosity to sexual desire, all play a role in teens' decisions about whether or not to engage in sexual behavior.

  • 82% of teens who had engaged in sexual intercourse cited having met the right person as a major or minor reason for their decision, 71% cited curiosity, 68% cited sexual desire, 56% cited a hope that it would make their relationship with the person closer, 34% cited pressure from their partner, and 18% cited a desire "to be more popular and accepted" as a major or minor reason for their decision.
  • 89% of teens who had never engaged in sexual intercourse cited feeling too young as a major or minor reason for their decision, 88% cited "a conscious decision to wait," 86% cited worries about STDs, 85% cited worries about pregnancy, 84% cited worries about what their parents would think, 75% cited not having met the right person yet, 63% cited religious or moral beliefs, 54% cited worries about what their friends would, and 49% cited not having had the opportunity as a major or minor reason for their decision.
  • Among teens who reported having engaged in oral sex, 76% cited "the other person wanted to" as a major or minor reason for their decision, 71% cited having met the right person, 69% cited the belief that "you are still a virgin if you have oral sex," 68% cited not having to worry about pregnancy, 64% cited curiosity, 40% cited wanting to avoid sexual intercourse, 35% cited the belief you can't get an STD, 24% cited wanting to avoid being touched or undress, and 21% cited wanting to "be more popular and accepted" as a major or minor reason for their decision.

SIECUS Analysis

SIECUS applauds NBC News and People Magazine for undertaking this important survey. In order to best educate young people and provide them with the skills and information they need to become sexually healthy, it is imperative that educators and public health experts know what young people are doing and what they are thinking. These findings mirror other surveys and studies and give us a number of important insights.

First and foremost, this study confirms that teens are engaging in a wide variety of sexual activity from kissing (58%) to oral sex (12%) to intercourse(13%). It is worth noting, however, that these numbers are lower than those found in previous studies. For example, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS), conducted ever two years in high schools across the country by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 46% of all high school students report having engaged in sexual intercourse as do 60% of high school seniors.1 It is likely NBC New/People Magazine found a lower incidence of sexual behavior because the survey questioned only younger teens (ages 13-16).

Nonetheless, these statistics confirm that young people are sexually active and need information and skills to protect themselves from STDs and unintended pregnancy. In fact, a full 40% of the sexually active young people surveyed reported that they never use contraception during vaginal intercourse.

The survey focused a number of questions oral sex, a topic that has received a lot of media attention in recent years. This finding confirm that a majority of young people (75%) believe that oral sex is "not as big a deal as intercourse" and that 69% of those young people who have had oral sex did so, at least in part, because they believed that "you are still a virgin if you have oral sex." At the same time, however, only 12% of the young people surveyed had engaged in oral sex and 96% of young people say they have never been to an "oral sex party," events the media seems to suggest are commonplace. Nonetheless, young people need help understanding oral sex and negotiating safer sex practices, the survey found that 40% of those young people who have had oral sex did so at least in part to avoid having sexual intercourse and 42% of these young people never use protection during oral sex.

Finally, these findings show a disconnect between parents and their teens when it comes to the topic of sexuality. For example, while only 15% of parents believed their teen had gone beyond kissing, 27% of teens reported having "been with someone in an intimate or romantic way" and 21% reported having "touched someone's genitals or private parts." In addition, while 42% of parents reported talking about sexuality "very often" with their teens, only 11% of teens agreed that these conversations took place "very often."

Ultimately, these findings clearly suggest that young people need help dealing with the complicated issues involved in negotiating sexual activity and "safer sexual practices." SICEUS believes that both parents and schools play important roles in helping young people acquire the information and skills they need to become sexually healthy.

For the complete findings, see Nearly 3 In 10 Young Teens 'Sexually Active': NBC News, People Magazine Commission Landmark National Poll" NBC News (19 January 2004), available online at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6839072

and

Topline Report; NBC /People: National Survey of Young Teens Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors at http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/Sections/TVNews/Dateline%20NBC/NBCTeenTopline.pdf

For more information on adolescent sexuality, see: SIECUS' Fact Sheet: "The Truth About Adolescent Sexuality".


  1. Jo Anne Grunbaum, et. al., "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance - United States, 2003," Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53.SS-2 (21May 2004): 1-95. Available online at: <http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/yrbs/>.

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