American teenagers are waiting longer before first engaging in sexual intercourse, and an overwhelming majority of those who are sexually active report using contraception, according to a comprehensive, well-respected government survey released yesterday.
The report examining youth behavior found that more young men in particular have postponed sex -- 46 percent were sexually active in 2002, compared with 55 percent in 1995 -- and that 91 percent of those who had sex in the previous three months used contraception.
For the first time since the government began the National Survey of Family Growth in 1973, more girls (47 percent) say they have had sex than boys (46 percent). Girls also report a high rate of contraceptive use -- 83 percent.
In many cases, researchers found, teens are using two types of contraception, such as the pill and a condom, to reduce the likelihood of pregnancy and of getting a sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS.
"The news is almost all positive," said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "This data clearly underscores teens are being a bit more cautious about sex. This is a real sea change."
The report comes amid a ferocious debate over the value of abstinence-only education, an approach President Bush has backed with $170 million in federal funding next year. Yesterday, both supporters and detractors of abstinence-until-marriage programs asserted that the report was validation of their sharply differing views.
More neutral academics said the positive trends most likely reflect a combination of abstinence education and instruction on safer sex bringing about the notable decline in risky sexual behavior.
"They are both having an impact," said Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR Associates, which focuses on health policy. "In today's polarized world, the very important message is that this [data] is not just abstinence-only or contraception."
In preparing its analysis, the National Center for Health Statistics interviewed close to 3,000 teenagers in one-on-one conversations in the home. Researchers praise the periodic survey as one of the most authoritative sources of information on adolescents, in part because it reaches teenagers in and out of school and because it measures not only attitudes but also specific behaviors.
With the exception of 18- and 19-year-old girls, teenagers of both sexes showed significant declines in early sexual activity. Older girls and African American girls were the only groups that did not show a drop in sexual activity. At the same time, nearly 10 percent of young women described their first sexual encounter as "non-voluntary."
Hispanic teenagers were the least likely to use contraceptives, and 24 percent of Hispanic girls were likely to give birth before age 20, compared with 8 percent of white teenagers.
Some of the most dramatic improvement has come in the area of teen pregnancy. In 1991, 62 of every 1,000 American girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth. A decade later, the teen birth rate fell to 43 per 1,000.
Even so, U.S. teen birth rates remain among the highest in the developed world. Canada's teen birth rate in 2002 was 20 per 1,000, and in France it was 8 per 1,000.
There are many theories for the lower rates in other countries, Kirby said, including wider availability of medical services and health information, less societal division over sex education, and a higher poverty rate among U.S. youth.