African-American teens are having less sex, according to recent analysis of data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The percentage of African-American teens who report they have never had sex rose from 18.5 in 1991 to 51.5 percent in 2015. The jump was even steeper for males. In 1991, barely 1 in 10 were not sexually active; in 2015 it was more than 4 in 10.
The results are “astounding,” according to experts. While the overall number of American teens who report they have never had sex also increased in the last 25 years, the increase for African-American male teens is nearly 10 times greater—a 28 percent increase for American teens and a 246 percent increase for African-American male teens since 1991.
“The increase is both unprecedented and enormously greater than any other ethnicity,” said the abstinence advocacy group Ascend, formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association.
The data comes from the CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a periodic survey of American high-schoolers about their participation in risky behavior. The survey asks about everything from sex, drugs, alcohol, and guns to bicycle helmets, online bullying, TV-viewing, and vegetable consumption.
The data for African-American male teens tells an interesting story. Along with a decrease in sexual activity, the rates of African-American male teens who have smoked a cigarette, carried a weapon, or had a drink of alcohol also dropped since 1991. But other risky behaviors are on the rise, including rates of prescription drug and marijuana use.
So why are so many African-American male teens waiting to have sex?
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Valerie Huber, president and CEO of Ascend, noting many commentators are scratching their heads and grasping straws to try to find an answer.
Some say youth are too involved in social media to have sex. Others assert increased access to pornography means less actual sex. Some theorize the economic recession has played a role. A 2014 study found a correlation between unemployed parents being home more and less teenage sex.
Regardless of the reason, the major takeaway should be the fact that waiting for sex is resonating with teens, Huber said. Too many adults today are giving up on this generation of teenagers, thinking they are unable or unwilling to make healthy decisions, she said. Sex education and messaging pointed at teens today often assumes the “inevitability of teen sex,” an example of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” she added.
Although rates for African-American male teens who have not had sex are still lower than rates for Hispanic and white teens, the increase for African-American teens has been steeper.
“Just think what these numbers might look like if adults and mentors were actually reinforcing these healthy choices,” Huber said.
Delayed sex correlates to several positive advantages, including higher educational attainment, healthier relationships, and lower rates of poverty, according to Ascend’s research. Avoiding sex is the first step in the process toward adulthood without poverty.
But Huber is cautious about future rates without changes in the country’s approach to sex education, which often pushes a message antithetical to what this data shows teens want, Huber said.
“I find it hard to believe that they will continue to decrease this dramatically if we don’t have reinforcing methods for this behavior,” she warned.
— by Kiley Crossland