updated 1/31/2005 11:26:10 AM ET 2005-01-31T16:26:10

NBC News and PEOPLE Magazine commissioned a landmark poll surveying young teenagers about their intimate sexual attitudes and practices. In one of the first surveys of its kind, teenagers as young as 13 reveal how much they know about sex and how much they are doing. The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, questioned 13 to 16 year-olds about their sexual behavior, relationships, oral sex, STDs, and casual sexual partners (what's now known as “friends with benefits”).

The findings provide important answers for parents struggling to cope with a newly promiscuous world. Below are the enlightening, and often surprising, answers to the NBC News/PEOPLE Magazine Poll:

Sexually active young teens
Nearly 3 in 10 (27%) thirteen to sixteen year-olds are sexually active and “have been with someone in an intimate or sexual way.”  Most of these sexually active teens have touched someone else’s genitals and almost half had oral sex and/or had sexual intercourse. Sexual activity is much more common among 15 to 16 year-olds (41%) than 13 to 14 year-olds (14%).

SUMMARY TABLE: Sexual activity among 13 to 16 year-olds

Most 13 to 16-year-olds waiting to have sex
The vast majority (87%) of teens aged 13 to 16, have not had sexual intercourse. Most (73%) have not been sexually intimate at all. Seventy-four percent say they have not had sex because they made a conscious decision not to.  As many (75%) have not because they believe they are too young.  Many say they abstain because they fear the potential consequences—pregnancy (74%), STDs (71%), parents’ reaction (65%).  While just more than half say it is because they haven’t met the right person yet (54%), few say it is because of a lack of opportunity (21%).  Four in 10 (42%) say they have not because of religious or moral beliefs.

SUMMARY TABLE: Why are teens waiting to have sex?

Girls are more likely than boys to cite a conscious decision to wait (81% vs. 67%), belief they are too young (82% vs. 67%), fear of pregnancy (77% vs. 71%), STDs (75% vs. 68%), or parents or (71% vs. 59%) friends’ reaction (28% vs. 13%).

Fifteen to 16 year-olds are more likely than 13 to 14 year-olds to say they have not had sex because they have not met the right person (62% vs. 47%).  Thirteen to 14 year-olds are more likely to say it is because they think they are too young (82% vs. 66%).

Teens with a Catholic parent (72%) are more likely to not have had sex because they are worried what their parents will think than those with a Protestant parent (63%) or another religious background (57%).

Those whose parents are better educated are more likely to say they have not had intercourse because of their religious or moral beliefs and less likely to say they have not out of a fear of catching an STD.

Is Oral Sex Really Not A Big Deal?
Most Teens Know What Oral Sex Is
Today, 70% of teens, ages 13 to 16, know the definition of oral sex.  Knowledge about oral sex is lower among the youngest teens but that knowledge increases with age. While only six in 10 (58%) 13 and 14 year-olds knew what oral sex is a solid majority of 15 and 16 year-olds (82%) know what oral sex is.

Is Oral Sex, Sex?
Three-quarters of teens would classify oral sex as “sex” (77%), but less than half (45%) would label touching someone's genitals as “sex”.

SUMMARY TABLE: What teens believe constitutes sex

Is Oral Sex A Big Deal?
For many teens (43%), oral sex is not seen as being as big a deal as sexual intercourse. Boys and girls see this somewhat differently. While almost half of boys (47%) think that oral sex is not as big of a deal as sexual intercourse, fewer girls feel that way (38%).

This doesn’t mean that teens are dismissive of its significance: Fifty-five percent of teens hold that it is “very important” to be in love before having oral sex. Somewhat more (68%) say it is very important to be in love before having sexual intercourse.

Are Teens Who Have Oral Sex Still Virgins?
While a majority of teens do feel that oral sex is as big a deal as intercourse, it seems oral sex is taken somewhat more lightly than intercourse. More than half (54%) of American teens maintain that teens who only engage in oral sex are still virgins.  However, the way in which virginity is defined varies by both their age and where they live:

  • Older teens, 15 to 16-year-olds, are more likely to say teens having oral sex are still virgins than are 13 to 14-year-olds (60% vs. 46%).
  • Suburban teens (60%) are more likely to say teens who have oral sex are still virgins than teens who live in an urban environment (45%).

Do Teens Approve of Teens Having Oral Sex?
Our survey found teens who know what oral sex is are more likely to accept older teens having oral sex. Most teens don’t think it is okay for 13 to 14 year-olds to be having it (87%).  Seven in 10 (70%) also don’t approve of 15 to 16 year-olds having oral sex.  However, fewer are disapproving of older teens - only a little more than third of teens (35%) think 17 to 18 year-olds shouldn’t engage in oral sex.  Girls are more likely than boys to disapprove of teens in each age group—13 to 14, 15 to 16, 17 to 18—engaging in oral sex or sexual intercourse.

At the same time this doesn’t necessarily reflect what they believe reality to be. More than six in 10 (65%) teens who know what oral sex is, say they know or knew at least a few 13 or 14 year-olds who were having oral sex.

How Many Teens Have Had Oral Sex?

  • One in 10 (12%) teens have had oral sex. Almost 9 out 10 (88%) teens have not.
  • Girls are as likely as boys to have had oral sex, but it seems there’s a discrepancy when it comes to willingness to perform oral sex. 22% of sexually active girls say their partner never performs oral sex on them, while only 5% of boys say their partner never does.
  • Engaging in oral sex is more common among 15 to 16 year-olds (19%) than 13 to 14 year-olds (4%). 
  • Four percent of teens have had oral sex in a casual relationship.
  • A statistically insignificant less than one-half of a percentage of teens said they had ever been to the now mythological oral sex party.

Why Are Teens Having Oral Sex?
Pressure, love, lust and pragmatism all figure into why teens decide to have oral sex.  While few teens (21%) say they had oral sex for the first time because they wanted to be more popular or to be accepted, 76% said they did so because the other person wanted to. Teens also say they had oral sex for the first time because they met the right person (71%), to satisfy a sexual desire (70%), so they didn’t have to worry about pregnancy (68%), or because they were curious (64%). Half (49%) say the first time they had oral sex they did so because they wanted to remain virgins. 

SUMMARY TABLE: Reasons teens had oral sex for the first time

Four in 10 teens say they have had oral sex to avoid having sexual intercourse.

  • Most 13 and 14 year olds who have had oral sex did so to avoid intercourse at least once.
  • Boys and girls are equally likely to have opted for oral sex over intercourse.

Do Teens Know the Risks?
More than eight in 10 (84%) teens who know what oral sex is know they can get an STD by having oral sex.  The youngest teens (13 to 14 year-olds) are less likely to know about the risks of engaging in oral sex than 15 to 16 year-olds. Girls are as likely as boys to know the risks of oral sex. 

While most know about the risks yet many don’t always take measures to protect themselves.  Nine in 10 (89%) teens who have had oral sex say they know STD can be spread through oral sex.  Yet only three in 10 (30%) always use protection when they have oral sex.

Sexual Intercourse
Young teens are as likely to have had sexual intercourse as oral sex.  But their reasons for doing so are somewhat different.  Among the 13 percent of young teens who have had sexual intercourse, a solid majority says a principal reason they did so for the first time was because they met the right person (62%).  This is consistent with the majority’s view that it is very important to be in love before having intercourse (68%). 

SUMMARY TABLE: Reasons teens had sexual intercourse for the first time

Curiosity (36%) or sexual desire (34%) played a major role in why young teens had sexual intercourse for the first time.  More than a quarter (28%) did so in hopes of making the relationship with the other person closer.  Fewer said they were pressured (15%) or did so to be accepted or popular (2%).  In addition, boys are more likely than girls to have had sex the first time to satisfy a sexual desire (49% vs. 15%).

While nearly all young teens (90%) know they can get an STD from having sexual intercourse, they’re not always acting on that knowledge.  Only two in three (67%) say they use protection such as condoms every time they have sex.

Young teens frown on those their age having sexual intercourse - an overwhelming majority (91%) say it is not okay for 13 to 14 year-olds to have sex.  Somewhat fewer, but still a majority, (78%) object to 15 to 16 year-olds having intercourse.  As with oral sex, opinions dramatically shift regarding older teens.  Fewer than half (42%) say it is not okay for 17 to 18 year-olds to have sexual intercourse. Girls are more likely than boys to disapprove of teens in each age group—13 to 14, 15 to 16, 17 to 18—engaging in sexual intercourse. 

“Friends With Benefits”
Casual relationships are not uncommon among sexually active teens.  Eight percent of 13 to 16 year-olds, which amounts to roughly half of young teens who have had oral sex or sexual intercourse, have been involved in a casual sexual relationship.  Girls are as likely to have had a casual relationship as boys . These casual relationships typically involve oral sex (78%) and/or sexual intercourse (79%).

Young teens who engage in casual relationships often do so “to satisfy a sexual desire” (67%).  Nearly half (48%) have had a casual sexual relationship because they wanted to “avoid the complications of a serious relationship.” 

SUMMARY TABLE: Reasons For Casual Sexual Relationship

What’s more, among teens who have had sexual intercourse and casual relations, more than two-thirds (69%) say they did not have the casual relationship to make their relationship with the other person closer. However, few young teens have casual relationships exclusively.  Only fourteen percent of young teens who have had a casual relationship say they have never been involved in a serious relationship.

Talking About Sex
Teens are most likely to say they talk often to their friends about sex and sexual relationships (62%). Four in 10 (41%) also say they talk with their parents often. Teens are much less likely to speak with school and religious leaders. Older teens (15 and 16 year olds) talk about sex with their parents more than younger teens, as do girls more than boys.  Teens who are having intercourse are somewhat more likely to speak with their parents about sex. However teens who are engaging in oral sex are more likely to speak with their friends about sex.

SUMMARY TABLE: Talk to often about sex and sexual relationships

Teens say they get information about sex and sexual relationships from a number of sources.  But parents top the list--70% say they have gotten a lot or some information about sex and sexual relationships from their parents. Followed by friends (53%), school (53%), TV and movies (51%) and magazines (34%). As an information source, the Internet ranks lowest.  Girls were more likely than boys to say they got information from school and magazines. Teens who were sexually active were much more likely to say they got information about sex from their friends and partners.

SUMMARY TABLE: Teens receive information about sex and sexual relationships

Before speaking with the teens in our survey, we interviewed their parents and found that most were concerned about the sexual pressures their teens were facing.   Large majorities of parents think it is a big concern for teens to know how to deal with sexual relationships (91%), set limits in intimate relationships (85%) or understand the consequences of engaging in sex (88%).

But were teens and their parents on the same page about how much communication was happening between them on the topic of sex and relationships? While both parents and teens report talking to each other about sex and relationships, there appears to be a disconnect: twice as many parents than teens maintain these conversations happen often (85% to 41%).

This disconnect continues when it comes to teens' actual behavior: while 27% of teens report having been sexually intimate, only about half of their parents (15%) believed their teens had gone beyond kissing.

Parents are more likely to be pessimistic about kids waiting to have sex than teens are. They’re also more likely to believe there is pressure to have sex by a young age than do teens. However parents and teens are largely on the same page when it comes to oral sex – about 4 in 10 of each group agrees that oral sex is not as big of a deal as sexual intercourse.

SUMMARY TABLE: Comparing parents’ and teens’ attitudes

Methodology
NBC News and People Magazine commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to conduct a nationally representative telephone survey of young teenagers and their parents.

The goal of this study was to conduct a nationwide survey of young teenagers (aged 13 to 16) on issues related to sexual health and activity. A companion survey was conducted among parents, in part to acquaint parents with the survey topic so they could give informed consent for their teen to participate and in part to provide a point of comparison against which to view teen responses.

The sample was designed to be generalizable to the population of young teens in the continental U.S. and to allow separate analyses, where possible, of teenagers 13-14 and 15-16. The interviewed sample of teens was weighted to match national parameters for sex, age, race, Hispanic origin, parent’s education, parent’s marital status and region (U.S. Census definitions).

Project staff listened to tapes of these interviews and these young teenagers appeared to have no difficulty telling interviewers if they did not want to answer a question. At the same time, most teens completed the entire questionnaire, usually in an open, frank and matter of fact manner.

1,000 interviews were conducted with parents and 1000 interviews were conducted with teenagers aged 13-16 during the period of September 4, 2004 and November 7, 2004. The margin of error for results based on the full sample of teens is ±3.4%. For teens aged 13-14 the margin of error ±5.0% and for 15 and 16 year-olds the margin of error is ±4.6%. The margin of error for results based on the full sample of parents is ±3.4%.

Analysis by Ana Maria Arumi
Further details on the design, execution and analysis of the survey are available at www.msnbc.com or www.people.com or AOL (Keyword: People).

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