A new US government report on risky behaviour amongst youth of high school age shows a decrease in sexual intercourse — a trend that has lasted more than two decades. Paediatrician Michelle Cretella welcomes the news, which, she says, confirms that teens are capable of abstaining from sex and thus protecting their physical and mental health in important ways. Here she answers some questions from MercatorNet.

MercatorNet: A recent report from the US Centres for Disease Control shows that nearly 60 percent of today’s high school students have never had sex – an increase of 28 percent since 1991. Is this unexpected? 

Dr Cretella: Given how sexually saturated our culture is — particularly given the porn epidemic — yes this was a surprise. It is also, of course, very encouraging. With the onset of puberty comes a natural interest in and attraction to sexual activity. The decision to engage in recreational sexual activity or delay until marriage is one of the most important decisions a youth will make.  Sexual activity has powerful effects upon each participant’s mind, emotions and physical body that can yield life-long negative consequences.

Q How much weight can be given to the CDC findings? Do you think they reflect a national trend?

A The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has significant limitations: Out of 50 million public school children, just over 15,000 were surveyed from 37 out of 50 states. So it is difficult to say how generalizable the results are to the national population, but the trend is certainly encouraging.

“Never had sex” – what does this phrase encompass – just sexual intercourse? 

The questionnaire only asked about sexual intercourse — and did not define it. The questionnaire did not ask about oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation (practices which spread STIs and can result in emotional harm) or masturbation coupled with porn use, which is addictive. It is possible, for example, that teen sexual intercourse is down, but that these other sexual activities have plateaued or increased. We do not know because the questions were not asked.

Perhaps the young people were too busy on their phones, as someone has suggested. What lesson do you draw from the data?

The only definite lesson we may draw is that many adolescents can and do abstain from sexual intercourse, contrary to the claims of comprehensive sex-ed proponents. The questionnaire did not investigate reasons why teens did or did not engage in sexual intercourse nor did they ask about other sexual activity apart from “intercourse”.

And the other 40 percent – what is happening among these teens? 

Again, this was not ascertained by the questionnaire. But we know from the CDC report that comprehensive sex education – which gives a central place to birth control and so-called safe sex — is failing. Teens who do choose to engage in sexual activity are using less birth control; sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise, as is adolescent depression, sometimes referred to as the emotional STI. 

Other studies have found that early sexual debut is often associated with dating violence.

Is the fact that other risky behaviour – drinking, fighting and smoking — has also declined relevant to the survey results?

With regard to these there is a correlation with public school education and media campaigns. However, the CDC data did also reveal an increase in electronic cigarette use so some of the students may have switched from tobacco cigarettes to electronic.

What’s the take-home message for parents and teachers? 

A The take home message is that many adolescents are capable of abstaining from sexual intercourse and thereby avoiding 100 percent of the risks associated with teen sexual activity: STI’s, teen pregnancy and emotional turmoil.

Although this CDC report does not document the success of parental and school-based abstinence education in delaying onset of sexual behaviour in children, a significant amount of other scientific literature does. Resources for parents and teachers, including statements referenced to the scientific literature, can be found at the website of the American College of Paediatricians

Michelle A. Cretella, M.D., is President of the American College of Pediatricians

Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2015 [PDF – 2.9 MB]

Michelle Cretella, MD, is a Board Certified Pediatrician with a focus on adolescent health. She serves as Vice President of the American College of Pediatricians and on the Board of Directors of the National...