More teenagers and young adults say they've never had a sexual experience with another person, with more than one-quarter of young men and women saying they've never had a sexual encounter.
Researchers aren't sure why teens and young adults may be delaying sex.
A new federal survey found that 27 percent of young men and 29 percent of young women ages 15 to 24 say they've never had a sexual encounter. That's compared to 2002, when 22 percent of both men and women said they had never had any sort of sex.
That may be because teenagers are delaying sexual activity.
"I'm impressed with the younger generation," John Santelli, a pediatrician and senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual and reproductive health, told Shots. "I see a generation of adolescents who are very concerned about making the right life choices — trying to take care of their health, trying to take care of their responsibilities in school. Perhaps this data reflects that."
The data comes from the National Survey of Family Growth, the largest federal survey of sexual health and sexual behavior. Interviewers talked to 13,495 people from 2006 through 2008, asking them about pregnancy, fertility, sex, and sexual identity.
The 2002 survey was the first to report that the majority of teenagers said they had had oral sex, which raised concerns that teens were putting themselves at risk for sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV.
The numbers are pretty much the same in this new survey, but the researchers refined their questions, and it looks like oral sex isn't that popular a substitute for intercourse among teenagers after all. Though half of teenagers said they had oral sex before their first experience with intercourse, just 7 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys ages 15 to 19 said they had had oral sex with a partner of the opposite sex, but had never had vaginal intercourse.
The researchers took pains to separate a person's sexual activity from his or her sexual identity. Women said they had more same-sex experiences than men, with 12.5 percent of women reporting a same-sex encounter, compared to 5.2 percent of men.
Women are also more likely to say they are bisexual, with 3.5 percent of women identifying themselves that way, compared to 1.1 percent of man. By contrast, about the same number of men and women identify themselves as homosexual or gay: 1 percent of women and 1.7 percent of men.
Of course, people don't always tell the truth when asked about touchy subjects like oral sex or same-sex relationships. That's a big issue, because the data from surveys like this one is used to direct funding and other resources to health care deliver and public-health campaigns.
To increase the odds that the study subjects will tell the truth about their sex lives, the surveyors are always women, who visit households chosen to represent the 124 million Americans ages 15 to 44. "The more sensitive the questions, the more both sexes only want to talk to a woman," Anjani Chandra, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics and the report's lead author, told Shots. Those women are usually in their 40s, she says; a nice non-threatening age.
When it's time for the most delicate questions, the interviewer hands her laptop to the subject, who then listens to the questions on headphones. "The respondent can enter her answers directly into the computer," Chandra says. The interviewer never knows the answer — and neither does Mom, who may be listening from the kitchen.
For the current survey, 75 percent of the people asked to participate said yes. That's a remarkable number, considering a stranger showed up unannounced on the doorstep and asked them to answer intimate questions about their sex lives. Chandra credits not just the survey participants but the skill and tact of the surveyors. "They somehow get people to do it," she said.