By Amanda Gardner
WEDNESDAY, June 2 (HealthDay News) -- More than 40 percent of unmarried U.S. teenagers -- or 4.3 million teen males and females -- have had sex at least once, a new U.S. government report shows.
This continues a flattening trend seen since 2002 and caps a downward trend seen between 1995 and 2002, especially in males, said report author Joyce Abma. The report was issued Wednesday by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.
"One of the great success stories of the past two decades has been the extraordinary declines in teen pregnancy and childbearing," said Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "This progress has recently stalled out."
Perhaps more surprisingly, one in five teen girls and one in four teen boys who had had sex said they would be pleased if they or their partner got pregnant.
"This is really quite alarming," Albert said. "I don't think it takes a Ph.D. to understand that in this day and age and in this economy the route to success doesn't begin with a family at age 16."
Another expert noted that sex education is key.
"With nearly half of all teenagers stating that they are sexually active, we cannot afford to keep our heads in the sand about ensuring that our young people have access to comprehensive sex education," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "While it's encouraging to hear that a majority of them are using some form of birth control, many of the attitudes revealed in this report tell us that there is plenty of room for more comprehensive sex education that includes information about abstinence, contraception, healthy relationships, and responsible decision-making."
The study, which analyzed data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth, also found that about one-quarter of female teens and 29 percent of males reported two or more sexual partners, the same as 2002. Females who started having sex when they were younger were more likely to accumulate more partners.
While most teens had not had intercourse in the month before being asked about this (76 percent of females and 79 percent of males, the same as 2002), 12 percent of females and 10 percent of males reported having sex in the prior month.
The majority of teens had used some form of contraception during their first intercourse: 79 percent of females and 87 percent of males. And condom use is on the rise. As in 2002, it ranked as the most common form of birth control and was used at least once by 95 percent of teens.
The next favored form of birth control was withdrawal (58 percent), then the pill (55 percent).
Seventeen percent of teens said they had used the rhythm method, as compared to 11 percent in 2002.
"Contraceptive use has not changed since 2002 with a few important exceptions," said Abma. "Males use more condoms frequently during their first sex and combination methods more frequently."
Seventy-one percent of female teens in 2006-2008 "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "it is OK for an unmarried female to have a child," about the same proportion as 2002. But now 64 percent of males agreed with the statement, up from 50 percent in 2002.
Fourteen percent of females and 18 percent of males interviewed said they would be "a little pleased" or "very pleased" if they or their partner got pregnant. On the flip side, 58 percent of never-married female teens and 47 percent of males said they would be "very upset" if this happened, pointing to the importance of motivation in not getting pregnant.
"When we talk about teen pregnancies and unplanned pregnancies more generally, people tend to focus on the important issues of cost and access [to birth control]," said Albert. "These are two critically important issues but I think that we often overlook this great ambivalence that many people have about when and under what circumstances to start families. Clearly, if you put a condom in everyone's hands they are not going to use them if they're ambivalent about getting pregnant. Cost and access are absolutely critical but so is motivation."