Analysis of a survey of the sexual activity of Utah's high school-age students has pinpointed three main "risk factors" that seem to have significant impact on whether a teenager is sexually active.
"Steady dating, alcohol or drug use and abstinent sexual values" are the most significant variables, according to the survey, conducted last spring by consultants to the Governor's Task Force on Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and staff of the state Office of Legislative Research. The task force received the survey results Monday."This is a working paper for the task force," said Sen. Stephen Rees, R-Salt Lake, task force chairman. "They will evaluate it along with a lot of other information they have gathered. It provides some information that has not previously been available."
Rees said two important points have to be understood: "Everybody is not doing it; it's the minority. And the value system does make a difference. That's the most significant variable, it looks like, to have an impact."
Utah is 10-15 percent below the national average in teen pregnancy rates but has a higher teen birth rate, according to Joseph Olsen, special consultant to the task force, because of a lower-than-average abortion rate. But despite the lower pregnancy rate, the trend is "moving in the wrong direction," he said.
The task force's mandate is to examine data and make recommendations to change the teenage pregnancy trend.
A major - and controversial - part of the 11-member task force's work revolves around a 103-question survey of high-school students conducted at 19 sites around the state.
A number of the questions were designed to find out if there are specific factors that determine whether students become sexually active or not - including family composition, grades, peer pressure, personal beliefs, dating patterns and others.
Of the 839 students surveyed (each with written consent from parents or guardians), 33 percent reportedly had engaged in sexual intercourse. Seventeen percent had done so at least once during the 30 days preceding the survey, so one-sixth of the students surveyed are considered sexually active, while one-third are sexually experienced. The proportion was identical for males and females.
By examining the combined effects of steady dating and alcohol and drug use on sexual activity, analysts came up with a "two-group classification" of "high-risk" and "low-risk" teens.
"The high-risk group," said the study, "is comprised of teens who are currently going steady or are no longer going steady, but have been drunk or high on drugs. The low-risk group is comprised of teens who have not been involved in steady dating, or those who have gone steady in the past but have not been drunk or high on drugs."
Teens who are "high risk" are 10 times as likely to be sexually active as "low-risk" teens. Less than half of the teens sampled were considered high risk, but those teenagers accounted for 92 percent of sexually active teens.
"Abstinent sexual values also play a crucial role in helping teens avoid sexual activity," said the paper. "Even among high-risk teens, those with abstinent values were one-seventh as likely to be currently sexually active (9 percent vs. 51 percent) and one-fourth as likely to have ever had sexual intercourse (24 percent vs. 85 percent). Among low-risk teens, those with abstinent values were one-ninth as likely to be sexually active (1 percent vs. 9 percent) and about one-sixth as likely to have ever had intercourse (4 vs. 29 percent).
"The 41 percent of teens who were both at low risk and also held values supporting sexual abstinence were almost never sexually active, while sexual activity was fairly common among the 27 percent of teens who were at high risk and did not hold values supporting abstinence (1 percent vs. 52 percent sexually active, respectively)."
Similar patterns were seen for those who were not considered sexually active, but had experienced intercourse.
Among other findings:
Teens who lived with both parents were less likely to be currently sexually active that those who did not. Unlike the national trend, those with three or more siblings were less likely to be sexually active than those with fewer.
Sexual activity increases with grade level. Those who plan to graduate from college have a lower activity rate than those who do not. And students who participate in extracurricular school activities are less likely to report being sexually active than those who do not.
Students who do well in school are less likely to be sexually active than those who do not.
Those who began dating before age 16 are more likely to be sexually active than those who started dating later or had not begun dating. Teens with peer support for abstinence are less likely to be sexually active. And those whose beliefs and values about human sexuality agreed with their parents' are less likely to be sexually active.
Religiously involved teens of all faiths have a lower rate of sexual activity than their non-religious peers.
Olsen said that only 20 percent of teenagers surveyed said they avoided sex because of the AIDS scare.
"It's not a big issue with kids," he said, "and maybe it should be more. Teens feel they are so invulnerable that it can't happen to them, so maybe that risk is not real to them."
Rees said there is no indication, from this or other studies, that sex education by itself affects "the beliefs, attitudes, values or the sexual activity rate, unless coupled with other things that take into account responsible decision-making kinds of skills.
"It looks like the programs that are successful involve parents," he said. "We hope that we can look at some approaches that are value-based in nature."