The nation's campaign to get more teenagers to wait to have sex and use condoms is faltering, threatening to undermine the highly successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy and protect young people from sexually transmitted diseases, federal officials said Wednesday.
New data from a large government survey shows that by every measure, the decadelong decline in sexual activity among high school students leveled off between 2001 and 2007 and the increase in condom use by teens flattened out in 2003.
Moreover, the survey found disturbing hints that teen sexual activity may actually have begun creeping up and that condom use among high school students might be edging downward, though those trend lines have not yet reached a point where statisticians can be sure, officials said.
“The bottom line is in all these areas we don't seem to be making the progress we were making before,” said Howell Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which conducts the survey.
“It's very troubling.”
Coming on the heels of reports that one in four teenage girls have a sexually transmitted disease and that the teen birth rate has risen for the first time in 15 years, the data are triggering alarms across the ideological spectrum.
The new report did not examine the reason for the trends, but experts said there could be many causes, including rising complacency about AIDS, changing attitudes about sex and pregnancy, shifts in ethnic diversity and the possibility that there will always be some teens who cannot be convinced to wait.
But the new figures renewed the heated debate about sex education classes that focus on abstinence until marriage, which began receiving federal funding during the period covered by the latest survey and have come under increasing criticism that they are ineffective.