Teen Sexuality by the Numbers

What Statistics Tell Us About Teen Sexual Activity

teenagers standing in a line
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All sex statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt, and understood for the imperfect measurements they are. Because society has a conflicted and often controversial relationship to sex, getting people to answer questions about their sex lives honestly and clearly is a much more difficult task than it may appear. This is doubly true when you are trying to research a group that is in any way marginalized, as teens are.

Because teens are routinely denied basic sexual rights, they have many reasons to hide their sex lives from adults, and few reasons to be honest about them.

And, of course, when we talk about statistics on teen sexual activity we need to keep in mind that the powers that be aren't really asking all teens.  Heterosexual and middle class teenagers are more likely to be surveyed about what we might call positive aspects of sexuality than teens who are LGB, trans, or queer, and teens who are living in poverty. Those teens are usually understood to be "at risk" and therefore we tend to ask them different questions about sex.

So it isn't just what data we have, it's how we collect it.

But none of this should stop us from trying to describe and understand the sexual behaviors of teens or any other group. And thankfully there are tenacious researchers out there who keep trying to improve their chances of getting an accurate snapshot of the sexual lives of teenager, and who keep trying to get that research, which is politically unpopular, funded.

Here is a sampling of findings from North America:

The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, reports that:

  • In most of the developed world, the majority of young women become sexually active during their teenage years, the proportion who have had intercourse reaches at least three-quarters by age 20.
  • Levels of sexual activity and the age at which teenagers become sexually active do not vary considerably across comparable developed countries, such as Canada, Great Britain, France, Sweden and the United States.
  • Teenagers in the United States are more likely to have sexual intercourse before age 15 and have shorter and more sporadic sexual relationships than teenagers in Canada, France, Great Britain and Sweden. As a result, they are more likely to have more than one partner in a given year.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest that the fear of increasing rates of teenage sexual behavior may be unfounded. For example:

  • Teenagers seem to be waiting longer to have intercourse. For example, the percentage of 12th-grade U.S. students who reported having had intercourse declined from 66.7% in 1991 to 60.5% in 2001.
  • In 1988 51% of US teenagers reported engaging in sexual intercourse with an opposite sex partner. In the period of 2006-2010 only 43% reported having had sexual intercourse.

These findings are similar to numbers among Canadian teens.

Several media reports have suggested that there is an increase in anal sex among teens, but the data don’t support this:

  • In a 1995 survey of teen males 15-19 years of age, 11% reporting having engaged in anal sex at least once.
  • In a 2002 study of males and females aged 15-19, 11% of both reported having engaged in anal sex at least once.

These two studies suggest that the frequency of anal sex is not increasing.

In a more recent 2008 survey of 1300 at risk youth aged 15-21 16% of the respondents reported having had anal sex in the previous three months.

One way that researchers get around the problem of asking teens questions about their sex lives is to wait until they are adults. Data from the CDC released in 2007 about adult sexual behavior included these two findings:

  • 16% of adults reported first having sex before they were 15 years old.
  • 15% of adults said they abstained from sex until they were 21 years of age.

In 2012 the CDC released new data from the National Survey of Family Growth which included responses from 15-24 year-olds about oral sex and vaginal intercourse.

Unfortunately these data continue to exclude same-sex contact. Among the findings for kids between 15 and 19 years-old were:

  • 55% of girls and 58% of boys had engaged in some kind of sexual contact.
  • 47% of girls and 44% of boys had engaged in vaginal intercourse.
  • 48% of girls and 49% of boys had either given or received oral sex.
  • 46% of girls and 44% of boys had never engaged in any sexual contact.

Read more about teen sexuality.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Prevalence and Timing of Oral Sex with Opposite-sex Partners Among Females and Males Aged 15 - 24 Years: United States, 2007-2010". National Health Statistics Reports No. 56, August 16, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Trends in Sexual Risk Behaviors Among High School Students – United States, 1991-2001." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Volume 51 (2002): 856-859.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Drug Use and Sexual Behaviors Reported by Adults in the United States, 1999-2002." Advanced Data from Vital and Health Statistics No. 384. June 28, 2004. Accessed July 8, 2007. <http://public.cq.com/public-content/sexcdc.pdf>

Gates, G.J. & Sonenstein, F.L. “Heterosexual Genital Activity Among Adolescent Males: 1988 and 1995” Family Planning Perspectives Volume 32, Issue. 6 (2000).

Lescano, C.M., Houck, C.D., Brown, L.K., et al. “Correlates of Heterosexual Anal Intercourse Among At-Risk Adolescents and Young Adults” American Journal of Public Health 2008 Nov 13. [Epub ahead of print]. Accessed December 9, 2008.

Mosher, W.D., Chandra A. & Jones J. “Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15–44 Years of Age, United States, 2002 . Advance data From Vital and Health Statistics; no 362. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2005. (available on the CDC website )

SIECCAN. "Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health in Canada: A Report Card in 2004." The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality Volume 13, Issue 2. (Summer 2004).