Study: Young Adults Are Having Considerably Less Sex and Abortions are Dropping as a Result

Opinion   |   Michael New, Ph.D.   |   Feb 26, 2018   |   6:11PM   |   Washington, DC

This month Politico Magazine ran a story by University of Virginia Professor W. Bradford Wilcox and Demographic Intelligence President Samuel Sturgeon about recent declines in sexual activity among young adults.  The article cites a 2017 study that was published by the Archives of Sexual Behavior.  This article uses data from General Social Survey (GSS) to present solid statistical evidence that since 2010, there has been a decline in sexual activity among a range of age demographics. However, some of the largest declines have taken place among young adults.

The Politico article offers several explanations for this decline in sexual activity. The current generation of young adults does not have particularly conservative views about sexuality.  However, millennials tend to be more risk averse and are more likely to be living with their parents. The article also notes that increased attention to sexual assault on college campuses has likely made students more cautious about engaging in sexual activity. Increases in smart phone use have also discouraged in-person socializing among young adults.  Finally, the article notes that increases in pornography use may be a factor as well.

This decline in sexual activity has a couple important policy implications that the Politico article fails to properly analyze. First is the decline in the abortion rate.  The U.S. abortion rate has been steadily declining since 1980. The mainstream media usually credit contraception and typically ignore all other potential factors.  However, good data from both the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth have clearly shown a long-term decline in teen sexual activity since the early 1990s.  This recent study is among the first to show that there has also been a recent decline in sexual activity among young adults.

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The second important policy implication is the recent decline in the unintended pregnancy rate.  Some analyses show that the rate of unintended pregnancies started to decline in 2008.  Many in the media have credited the contraception mandate that was included in the Affordable Care Act. However, a 2017 Guttmacher study found that contraceptive use remained constant between 2008 and 2014. As such, this data showing an overall decline in sexual activity – with larger declines taking place among young adults – offers a far more compelling reason for the recent decline in the rate of unintended pregnancies.

Many policy analysts feel that sexual activity among the young is a given. Therefore, they attempt to reduce unintended pregnancy rates through programs to encourage contraceptive use. However, good research shows that levels of sexual activity among teenagers and young adults have fluctuated over time. The reasons behind the recent decline in sexual activity among both teenagers and young adults may be complicated. However, this new research clearly indicates that policy efforts to either delay or reduce sexual activity are not necessarily doomed to failure.

LifeNews Note: Michael J. New is an Associate Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. He is a former political science professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a fellow at Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.