Teenagers are starting to have sex at a younger age than ever before. In the 1970s, less than 50 percent of 19 year-olds reported having sexual intercourse. Now, more than 80 percent of 19 year-olds say they have had sex. Half of all 17 year-olds have been or are sexually active, and 25 percent of 15 year-olds have had sex at least once.
The fact that many teens are having sex at such a young age concerns health care providers, who see high rates of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections in teens.
Teens who dive into sexual activity early may miss out on the fun of having friends of both genders, going out and eventually becoming romantically involved with one person. Once a teen has sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend, sex often becomes the focus of the relationship. The other important aspects of a relationship - getting to know each other on a deeper level, mutual respect and support, and emotional intimacy - may take a back seat to physical intimacy.
Younger teens are not intellectually mature enough to make good decisions about preventing pregnancy and protecting themselves against sexually transmitted infections. It is common for them to be in denial about some of the realities of life; they simply believe they are immortal and no harm can come to them.
Girls who become sexually active in their teens often have older boyfriends who push them into having sex before they are ready. They are not emotionally mature enough to refuse, and rarely take steps to protect themselves from pregnancy and infections.
Teenage boys have strong sexual urges, but sometimes don't acknowledge the risks that come along with sexual activity. Some boys may believe pregnancy prevention is solely their girlfriend's concern; they think it is impossible they could have or get a sexually transmitted disease.
Ten percent of teens do not use any type of contraception at all. Those who do use condoms, birth control pills or another form of birth control are not always consistent and often don't use the method correctly.
The reality is that nearly 1 out of 5 sexually active teenage girls in the United States get pregnant each year. At least 30 percent of these teen pregnancies end in abortion.
Nearly 1 out of 4 teenagers who are having sex acquire a sexually transmitted disease each year. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are more common in teens than in older men and women.
Chlamydia infections are of special concern in teenage girls. Often the infection has no symptoms, but can lead to inflammation and scarring of the fallopian tubes, causing future infertility.
Early sexual activity and infection with HPV (the human papilloma virus, which causes genital warts) is associated with cervical cancer in women.
Why are teens having sex before they are intellectually and emotionally ready? Many experts point to the proliferation of sexual content in television, movies, music, magazines and advertisements, and on the Internet.
Teens from families who do not value education or reward academic achievement are more likely to be sexually active. Once teens become sexually active, their educational achievement declines.
Other studies have shown that teenagers who come from families where one or both parents are uninvolved are more likely to have sex at a young age.
Teenagers need support from their families, schools and community groups to keep them focused on their education. Adults need to openly acknowledge sexual content is everywhere and that teens may feel pressure to have sex.
Honest communication with teenagers about the risks of sex and the benefits of waiting until they are intellectually and emotionally mature enough to handle a sexual relationship may help prevent unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and broken hearts.
Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.