Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Teens’ Experiences with Intimate Relationships


Teens’ initial experiences with romantic relationships are an important potential influence on their later relationships in adulthood. During adolescence, many will develop a newfound interest in romantic and sexual relationships. More than 80 percent of first romantic relationships are formed by the age of 18 (Carver et al. 2003). These early experiences may set the stage for later relationships. Early relationships may build confidence about interacting with the opposite sex and reinforce interest in coupling. Recent work, for example, suggests that youth who form romantic relationships in high school are more likely to cohabit and marry in early adulthood (Raley et al. 2007). In this section, we examine teens’ reports of dating and sexual activity.

  • Almost all teenagers date at some point. More than half of older teens report being sexually active. Most sexually active teens are dating their sexual partners.

Most teens date at some point during adolescence. Among teens in our sample, roughly three-quarters of 15 year olds reported they had dated (Figure II.4). Among 18 year olds, almost all (95 percent) reported having dated. Girls were less likely than boys to report having dated at younger ages, but reported similar levels of dating at ages 17 and 18. For example, 71 percent of 15-year-old girls reported having dated, compared to 78 percent of 15-year-old boys. By age 18, 94 percent of girls and 95 percent of boys reported having dated. The proportion of sexually active teens is much smaller than the proportion of teens who have dated. Among 15 year olds in our sample, for example, 74 percent reported having dated, but only 22 percent reported having had sexual intercourse (Figure II.4). Most older teens reported having had sexual intercourse, although the proportion still lagged behind those who had dated. Among 18 year olds, 94 percent had dated and 65 percent had had sex. Unlike dating, girls and boys reported similar levels of having had sex at every age examined.

Figure II.4
Teen Dating and Sexual Activity, by Age

Figure II.4  Teen Dating and Sexual Activity, by Age. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: NLSY97, 1999 wave.

Of course, teen sexual activity does not always occur within a dating relationship. NSFG data provide some evidence for how often sexual activity coincides with dating for teens. Male and female NSFG respondents were asked somewhat different questions about this issue. Among 15-to-18-year-old sexually active girls who responded to that survey, 78 percent indicated that they were going out or going steady with their first sexual partner. Among sexually active male respondents of that same age, 64 percent indicated that they were going out with or going steady with their most recent sexual partner. These figures suggest that, although teen sexual activity outside of dating relationships is relatively common, in most cases, teen sexual activity occurs within a dating relationship.

  • White teens are more likely to date than teens in other racial and ethnic groups. African Americans and those with low incomes are more likely than other teens to report being sexually active.

Most teens-regardless of race or ethnicity-report dating. Among the teens in our sample, more than 80 percent of whites, African Americans, and Hispanics reported having ever dated (Figure II.5). White teens, however, were more likely than teens of other races and ethnicities to report having dated, whereas African American teens were less likely. Differences between income groups were small and not statistically significant.

Sexual activity follows a different pattern. Among teens in our sample, 41 percent of whites and 45 percent of Hispanics reported having had sex, compared to 59 percent of African American teens. These racial and ethnic differences are consistent with data from other national surveys (compare Mosher et al. 2005; CDC 2006).

Figure II.5
Teen Dating and Sexual Activity, by Race/Ethnicity

Figure II.5  Teen Dating and Sexual Activity, by Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: NLSY97, 1999 wave.

Note: Figures refer to teens 15-18 years old in 1999.

* Difference from teens in other racial/ethnic groups statistically significant at .05 level.

Rates of sexual activity among teens also vary by their socio-economic status. Among our sample members, 51 percent of those living in low-income households (below 200 percent of the poverty level) reported having had sex, compared with 39 percent of teens who lived in higher-income households. Similarly, among teens whose mothers had a high school education or less, 49 percent reported having had sex, compared with 38 percent of those with more-educated mothers.

Teenage sexual activity rates also vary by geographic region. Teens in the South are the most likely to report being sexually active, with 48 percent indicating on follow-up surveys that they have had sex. In contrast, 44 percent of Northeastern teens, 42 percent of Midwestern teens, and 39 percent of Western teens reported having had sex.

  • High school students have become less likely to date in recent years. They also appear to be delaying sexual activity more than they did 15 years ago.

Has the likelihood that teens date or have sex changed in recent years? Data from two studies, Monitoring the Future (MTF) and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), enable us to examine this question for teens who are enrolled in high school. MTF is an annual survey of approximately 50,000 adolescents in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. Each year, the survey includes the question, “On average, how often do you go out with a date?” The YRBS is administered every other year and includes 10,000 to 16,000 adolescents in each survey round. The sample is nationally representative of teens in 9th to 12th grades. In each survey round, the YRBS asks respondents whether they have ever had sexual intercourse. To improve comparability of the results across the two data sets, we focus primarily on 12th graders. It is important to note that the patterns presented below refer only to teens enrolled in high school. Trends in dating and sexual activity for all teenagers, including high school dropouts, may be somewhat different.

The likelihood that high school students date regularly has declined in recent years. Over the past 15 years, there has been a steady decrease in the proportion of 12th graders who report dating (Figure II.6). The percentage of high school seniors who said they date has dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 73 percent in 2006.(7) This trend, however, could reflect changes in terminology. Teens often develop their own jargon, which changes with different cohorts. Dating may not mean the same thing to teens in 2006 that it did in 1990. Some suggest that the term “dating” has been replaced by “hanging out” or “going with someone” in the vernacular (Miller and Benson 1999). Consequently, the decline presented in Figure II.6 may represent, at least in part, a change in terminology rather than a change in behavior.

Figure II.6
Dating and Sexual Activity Trends Among High School Students, 1990-2006

Figure II.6  Dating and Sexual Activity Trends Among High School Students, 1990-2006. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: Data on dating from Monitoring the Future, 1990-2006. Data on sexual activity from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

Note: See footnote 7 for the definition of the term “ever dates.”

The likelihood of sexual activity among high school students also fell in recent years — although less dramatically than the likelihood of dating. In 1991, 67 percent of 12th graders reported they had ever had sex, compared to 63 percent in 2005 Figure II.6). This decline is not statistically significant. A clearer trend emerges, however, for all teens in high school. In 1991, approximately 54 percent of high school teens reported having had sex, compared to 47 percent in 2005, a decline that is statistically significant. This larger decline in sexual activity for all high school students relative to 12th graders alone suggests teens may be delaying sexual activity until later in high school. Other research suggests this may be the case. For example, one recent study found that the decline of sexual activity for teens in the 1990s was largely driven by a delay in sexual initiation, particularly for girls (Abma et al. 2004).

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