Although the majority of teens ages 10 to 14 are not sexually active, a significant number do engage in sexual intercourse. These younger teens are at great risk of experiencing negative consequences because of their physical immaturity, vulnerability to older men, and limited education, skills, finances, and other resources. Factors that must be considered when addressing the sexual and reproductive health needs of younger teens include the prevalence of sexual abuse and the role of male partners. Unfortunately, most prevention efforts do not reach these teens, leaving them without the necessary skills and information to make healthy and responsible decisions about their sexual behavior.
Sexual Activity Is Increasing Among Younger Teens.
- A significant minority of younger teens are sexually active. Twenty-three percent of all 14-year-olds and 30 percent of all 15-year-olds have had sexual intercourse.1
- The sexual activity rate among younger teens is increasing. Among males who turned 20 between 1970 and 1972, 20 percent had had sexual intercourse by age 15, compared to 27 percent of those who turned 20 between 1985 and 1987. Of females who turned 20 between 1985 and 1987, 10 percent had initiated sexual intercourse by age 15, compared to 4 percent of those who turned 20 between 1970 and 1972.2
- African Americans are more likely to initiate sexual intercourse at a young age. More than half of African American males have already had sexual intercourse by age 15. White and Hispanic males do not attain these levels of sexual activity until age 17. In 1992, approximately 25 percent of African American females and approximately 15 percent of Hispanic and white females have had sexual intercourse by age 15.2
- Sexuality education courses do not increase the likelihood of sexual activity among younger teens. In fact, of those who waited until age 18 to start having sexual intercourse, nearly 61 percent of women and almost 52 percent of men had attended a sexuality education course. Among those who initiated sexual intercourse at age 16 or younger, fewer than half - in the case of males, considerably fewer - had taken such a course.3
Pregnancy Rate for Younger Teens Is Increasing.
- The pregnancy rate among females age 14 and under rose from 13.5 (per 1,000 females age 14) in 1973 to 17.1 in 1992.4
- Approximately nine percent of sexually experienced females age 14 and under become pregnant each year.1
- The abortion rate among all females age 14 and under was 5.6 (per 1,000 females age 14) in 1973, 8.4 in 1980, and 7.9 in 1990.2
- In 1994, there were 12,901 births to teens under the age of 15.5
Early Initiation of Sexual Intercourse Increases Sexual Risk Taking.
- Young age at first intercourse is associated with subsequently having multiple sexual partners and more frequent intercourse, both of which increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and becoming pregnant.2
- Compared to males with no history of drug use, the level of sexual activity before age 16 among those that do use drugs was 39 percent higher for males reporting previous use of alcohol or cigarettes, 173 percent higher for marijuana users, and 235 percent higher for those who had also used other illicit drugs. Prior drug use and early initiation of sexual intercourse were even more strongly associated for females. Females who reported prior use of alcohol and cigarettes, marijuana, and other illicit drugs, had sexual activity rates that were 80, 245, and 400 percent, respectively, higher than those with no history of drug use. These findings held most strongly among whites and Hispanics.2
Younger Teens Who Give Birth Face Serious Consequences.
- Adolescent females may be more susceptible to STDs than older women. Teen girls have fewer antibodies to STDs and may have a higher risk of cervical infections.1
- The maternal death rate for teens under age 15 is two and a half times greater than that of mothers aged 20 to 24.6
- Babies born to teens younger than 15 are more than twice as likely to weigh less than 2,500 grams (about 5.5 pounds) at birth and are three times more likely to die in the first 28 days of life than babies born to older mothers.7
- The link between early childbearing and poor health outcomes is due not to age, but rather to the numerous risk factors associated with being young, such as inadequate prenatal care and nutrition.8 The younger a woman is, the less likely she is to receive prenatal care during the first trimester of her pregnancy.1
- Of African American teen mothers who were less than 16 years old when they gave birth, 72 percent were still living in poverty at age 27. Among Hispanic women and white women, 67 percent and 32 percent, respectively, are living in poverty.9
Adult Men Often Father Babies Born to Younger Teens.
- Fathers of babies born to teens are often significantly older than their female partners. It is estimated that, among girls who have given birth to a child by age 15, 39 percent of the fathers are between the ages of 20 and 29.7
- The age gap between teen mothers and their male partners is particularly striking among the youngest adolescents. Among mothers ages 11 to 12, fathers are on average 9.8 years older, and among mothers ages 13 to 14, fathers are on average 4.6 years older.10
Younger Teens Have Low Contraceptive Use Rates.
- Relatively little is known about the contraceptive use of teens under age 15 because they are often excluded from the few surveys that examine sexual activity. A substantial portion of sexual activity among this age group is unplanned or coerced, making contraceptive use unlikely.7 The older a teen is at first intercourse, the more likely she or he is to use contraception.1
- Younger teens are less likely to have the finances and knowledge needed to obtain contraceptives.2 Young women seeking oral contraceptives or other prescription methods may be embarrassed to have a pelvic examination or have difficulty locating a physician other than their pediatrician.1 In addition, they may delay seeking contraceptives, fearing parental discovery and/or disapproval.2
- One-third of 15-year-old girls say that neither of their parents has talked to them about how pregnancy occurs; about half say neither parent has discussed contraception or STDs.1
- Younger teens are often uninformed about contraception. Only 10 states have sexuality education curricula with clear messages about contraception at the junior high school level; only Iowa includes material about contraception at the elementary school level.7
Younger Teens Are Sexually Assaulted and Coerced.
- Teens are often exposed to unwanted sexual activity at very young ages. A survey conducted in 11 states and the District of Columbia found that over half of the females reporting rape were under the age of 18 and 16 percent were under the age of 12.11
- Early initiation of sexual intercourse is frequently linked to previous sexual victimization. About 74 percent of women who had sexual intercourse before age 14 and 60 percent of those who had sex before age 15 report having had sex involuntarily at some point in their lives.1
- Many teen mothers have been victims of sexual violence. In a study of pregnant and parenting teens, nearly 66 percent reported nonvoluntary sexual activity; 44 percent reported having been raped. The average age of first rape was 13.3, with the rapist's average age being 22.6.12
- Alan Guttmacher Institute. Sex and America's Teenagers. New York, NY: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994.
- Moore KA, Miller BC, Glei D et al. Adolescent Sex, Contraception and Childbearing: A Review of Recent Research. Washington, DC: Child Trends, 1995.
- Marsiglio W, Mott FL. The impact of sex education on sexual activity, contraceptive use and premarital pregnancy among American teenagers. Fam Plann Perspect 1986; 18:151-162.
- Henshaw SK. U.S. Teenage Pregnancy Statistics. New York, NY: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1996.
- Ventura SJ, Martin JA, Mathews TJ et al. Advance report of final natality statistics, 1994. Monthly Vital Statistics Report 1996; 44(11 suppl):1-88.
- Morris L, Warren CW, Aral SO. Measuring adolescent sexual behaviors and related health outcomes. Public Health Reports 1993; 108(suppl 1):31-36.
- Committee on Unintended Pregnancy, Institute of Medicine; Brown SS, Eisenberg L, eds. The Best Intentions. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995.
- Nord CW, Moore KA, Morrison DR et al. Consequences of teen-age parenting. J Sch Health 1992; 62:310-318.
- Moore KA, Myers DE, Morrison DR et al. Age at first childbirth and later poverty. J Research Adolesc 1993; 3:393-422.
- Males M. School-age pregnancy: why hasn't prevention worked? J Sch Health 1993; 63:429-432.
- Langan PA, Harlow CW. Child rape victims, 1992. Crime Data Brief [Pub No. NCJ-147001]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994.
- Boyer D, Fine D. Sexual abuse as a factor in adolescent pregnancy and child maltreatment. Fam Plann Perspect 1992; 24:4-11+.
Compiled by Ilana Nossel
October 1996 © Advocates for Youth