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Are today’s teens more sexual?

Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System
Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System | Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Rosie was in high school when I visited her classroom, back in the mid-1990’s.  Bringing out my outdated overhead projector and clear plastic transparencies, I gave my sexual abstinence and healthy choices message. I got plenty of teenage eye-rolls. Yet, I could quiet a classroom with my true stories. Students who were uninterested before, seemed to look up and listen. While each teen could choose what they wanted to do sexually — I was telling them about how the decisions made now can change their future. It wasn’t just about their sexual choices — it was about risky behavior in alcohol consumption and drug use. Since Planned Parenthood had already visited their classes and handed out condoms, I was the follow-up act to give them advice that I hoped they’d remember —lessons from others who had tripped and fallen ahead of them. Rosie listened, but she didn’t really care to follow the advice of someone her mother’s age. So, she didn’t. Now she has a teenager who will soon be making the decisions Rosie had to make. What will she decide?

Most of us assume that in today’s highly sexualized culture, with Hollywood, TikTok, and disappearing SnapChats, that many of today’s teens are ripe for sexual activity at even younger ages. After all, it would appear our sexual abstinence messages fell on deaf ears. Or did they? Perhaps those teens sitting in classrooms in the mid-1990’s and onward, recalled those talks and the effects that come with sexual activity. Maybe their children will make different choices.

It appears that this generation of teens — Gen Z is making different choices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released the results for the biannual survey of Youth Risk Behavior. This study is administered by the CDC to track high school age groups for risky behaviors including sexual activity. This is one of the more respected studies because of its detailed longitudinal views of teen sexual choices. The study began in 1991 — which is just a few years shy of when I started making my trek to visit middle and high school students.

Here’s the good news: In 2019, only 38.4% of American high school students have ever had sex. In 1991, when the survey started, the rates were at 54%. From 1991 until now, the rates of sexual intercourse among teens has steadily dropped. Boys (39.2%) are still ahead of girls (37.6%) — but some reporting bias could be represented in the responses that boys provided.

These downward trends extend across racial groups as well. In 1991, black high schoolers reported sexual intercourse at 81.55%. Now those numbers have declined to 42.3%. Looking at the chart provided by the YRBS/CDC, those downward trend lines reveal that this generation is far more averse to risky behavior than the generation prior. Additionally, there has been a steady decline in teen pregnancy and abortion. This study also reveals that this generation of teens are less likely to drink alcohol, and smoking cigarettes is at a record low.

Even though this study reveals such positive news, it would be hard to believe it when teens are represented as highly sexualized in popular television shows like Riverdale and Euphoria. Thankfully, teens don’t seem to buy into the media-driven sexualized message being sold. Certainly, they have the future ahead to continue making healthy choices, but they are wisely making safer choices now.

Karen Farris saw the need to help underserved kids while serving in a youth ministry that gave her the opportunity to visit rural schools on the Olympic Peninsula. She now volunteers her time grant writing to bring resources to kids in need. She also shares stories of faith in action for those needing a dose of hope on her weekly blog, Friday

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