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Cory Silverberg

New Teen Sex Survey

By June 7, 2009

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Planned Parenthood Toronto just released a report (in collaboration with three Canadian universities and the Toronto Department of Public Health) which represents the most inclusive survey of teen sexual behaviors in Canada, and one of the most exciting pieces of research on teen sexual health I've seen in a long time. The report is geared to both youth and service providers and is unique in part because of it's use of a participatory research model that included youth in the early stages of research. I'm just starting to dig into the 52 page report and if you're someone who works with youth it's a goldmine of data and conversation starters around the office. Here are some of the numbers that jumped out for me:

The great news is that 92% of youth reported receiving some kind of sex education. The less than great news is that the education they get isn't having much of an impact on seeking sexual health services. The vast majority of youth (83%) have never visited a health care provider for sexual health services (keep in mind that in Toronto most of those services are free, so while economics and class do represent institutional barriers in Canada, they aren't the same as they are in the U.S.). Among those youth who have accessed services most are unsatisfied with the experience.

The Difference Between What Youth Get and What Youth Want
Teens were asked about what information they got in sex education, and what information is most important to them, here are their top three picks in both:

They reported hearing about:

  1. HIV/AIDS
  2. STIs
  3. Pregnancy/birth control.

They report wanting to hear about:

  1. Healthy relationships
  2. HIV/AIDS
  3. Sexual pleasure

I really hope that those who determine curriculum take note of this statistics. Yes, we all need information about disease prevention and unwanted pregnancy, but most of us want much more than that, and delivering the disease/contraception information in the context of a conversation we actually want to have (about pleasure, about relationships) might make us more engaged in the disease/contraception stuff. It might not, but since practically no one includes sexual pleasure and relationships in sexual education curriculum, it couldn't hurt to try.

What are Teens Doing
After all the hype about an epidemic of youth oral and anal sex, these numbers provide a useful reality check:

  • 69% report kissing a partner
  • 25% giving or receiving oral sex
  • 27% vaginal penetration
  • 7% anal sex

At age 13, 5% reported engaging in vaginal or anal intercourse, while 43% reported engaging in either mastubation or no sexual activities at all. Among 18-year-olds or older, 65% reported engaging in vaginal or anal intercourse, and 8% reported engaging in either mastubation or no sexual activities at all.

Sexual Orientation and Sexual Behaviors
Sex educators have long tried to dissuade youth and adults that there's a clear or simple relationship between the kinds of sex you have, who you have sex with, and how you identify yourself. The study looked at sexual orientation and pregnancy rates and found that 7% of "straight or `heterosexually-identified' youth" reported being involved with pregancy, 28% of "sexually diverse youth" reported being involved with pregnancy (they use the term sexually diverse to describe youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, pan-sexual or queer). Here's what they say about these findings:

This finding is particularly meaningful for two reasons. First, it is important to recognize that while young people who identify as sexually diverse are often offered sexual health promotion messaging that is related to disease prevention, they clearly need information about reproductive health. Second, it challenges many stereotypes about the links between sexual orientation and sexual behaviour.

What Sex Means to You(th)
The survey asked teens if "in their opinion" they had sex, been pregnant, or engaged in specific listed behaviors. Check out the responses:
Of the 37% who said they had had sex:

  • 72% reported having vaginal intercourse
  • 60% reported having oral sex
  • 17% reported having anal sex

Of the 59% who said they had not had sex:

  • 1% report having vaginal intercourse
  • 4% report having oral sex
  • 1% report having anal sex

Of the 4% said they were unsure:

  • 21% report having vaginal intercourse
  • 28% report having oral sex
  • 9% report having anal sex

It's that last group I want to know more about. What is it about the question that makes them indicate they are "unsure"? Are these youth who are lacking the information and support to label their experiences when asked? Are they describing non-consensual sexual experiences and that is making them question whether they "count"? Are they unwilling or uncomfortable putting a label on their sexual activities? Without more information about what participants made of this question it's just a guessing game, but these responses seem to point to a rich area for future research, and a great opportunity to offer youth support that is accessible to them.

Read the Full Report:
Sarah Flicker, Susan Flynn, June Larkin, Robb Travers, Adrian Guta, Jason Pole, & Crystal Layne (2009) Sexpress: The Toronto Teen Survey Report. Planned Parenthood Toronto. Toronto, ON.

Related - Teen Sex Statistics

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