Love & Sex

The Kids Are Alright

Teen sex is down, and that’s a good thing

Here’s an intriguing data point that bobbed up in the torrent of bad news flowing from my phone: Teenagers are having less sex.

Like, a lot less. WTF?

The number of New Mexico high school students who say they’re sexually active decreased by 38% between 2011 and 2021, according to recent data the state Department of Health previewed in late January. At first glance, this drop is a bit of a mystery for some people, particularly Gen-X parents who were the OG Netflix and chill generation (if by Netflix you mean a Betamax tape of Better off Dead). Did you know 1991 was peak teen sex? That year more than half of 9th-12th graders said they had ever had intercourse and more than a third said they were currently sexually active. But those numbers have been steadily dropping like a geriatric boner; today, less than 20% of New Mexico high schoolers say they’re doing it.

And sex isn’t an anomaly in the results of the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, says NMDOH epidemiologist Dan Green.

“The quick high-level look is that alcohol use is down, tobacco use is down...substance use across the board [is down],” following a long trend.

At the same time, parental supervision is up; 85% of high schoolers said their parents usually know where they are when they’re not home. These are major societal shifts for the latchkey teens of the late ‘70s through early ‘90s. Vigorously ignored by their working parents, many naughty Gen X teens spent their free time pilfering cigarettes from the cabinet over the fridge, skimming booze from the bottles in the liquor cabinet and bumping uglies in the back of the Taurus.

I mean, I’m just telling you what the statistics say. I can understand how it wouldn’t be surprising if some of you who look back on your early post-drivers-license days with golden-hued fondness might wonder: What is wrong with these kids today? Can they not put their phones down long enough to get busy? Obviously, this is not the perspective of public health officials, who are delighted by the stats.

“This is a real success story!” Green says, echoing the comments of several health experts I interviewed for this story.

If you put the snark on pause for a minute it becomes clear that this is, in fact, good news. Birth control use is up, teen pregnancy is down and “enthusiastic consent” is on the syllabus. Green specifically credits school-based health centers for many of the positive outcomes, saying they’re doing a “phenomenal job” in educating kids about sexual health.

Lizzie Small worked as a sex educator with Planned Parenthood for five years before starting in 2022 as the director of education and outreach at Self Serve in Albuquerque. She says access to comprehensive sex ed often results in young people delaying the first time they have sex.

“That’s not because they’re scared out of it,” she says, “but because they’re given the tools they need to make those decisions themselves.”

Poor Gen X got notoriously bad sex ed, if we got it at all. So many film strip photos of chancres and closeup diagrams of tubes with Latin names. (To my mom’s credit, she did put a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on an eye-level shelf in the den. So I learned how to perform a menstrual extraction in case I...spent too much time rubbing my copiously flowing body hair against a man’s copiously flowing body hair? The connections weren’t 100% clear.)

“Efforts to scare kids don’t work because as soon as they see those scary risks aren’t going to happen or didn’t happen that one time, they tune out,” Small says.

Often the best sex ed happens in combined-gender classes where everyone talks about it together, according to Small, who describes those conversations as “building empathy so people have a better understanding of what the other person is going through and what they may want or need.”

Something I managed to extrapolate from the DOH’s data: The teens who are most likely to be having sex, and most likely to be using condoms (to prevent STDs, not just pregnancy) are the ones who have the strongest relationships with their peers. They have friends they can talk to and they’re better equipped to have honest conversations with their partners. Parents are having more honest conversations with kids, too, and the icky stigmas around sex are receding, schools are reaching out in relatable ways and now, thanks to Obama, everyone gets a free IUD! Now it’s on the codgers to keep up the momentum.

“Most of us did not grow up getting this information and say, ‘I wish I learned this differently,’” Small says. “Now with young people, we have the opportunity to make that keep ensuring that youth have access to quality, comprehensive and inclusive sex ed. It’s a sign that more open conversation has an impact.”

Gwyneth Doland is a former SFR columnist who now teaches UNM students how to make dumb jokes about important statistics.

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