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Understanding the shift: Decline in teen sex during the pandemic

By Lee Cleveland - July 13, 2023


In recent years, there has been a significant decline in high school students engaging in sexual activity. This trend was further accelerated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A government survey conducted annually sheds light on this remarkable shift in adolescent behavior. As we explore the factors contributing to this decline, it becomes evident that the pandemic and its associated consequences have played a vital role.

The Statistical Downward Spiral

The data from the survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights a remarkable decline in teen sexual activity.

About three decades ago, more than half of teenagers reported having engaged in sexual intercourse. However, by 2019, this percentage had dropped to 38%. In 2021, the survey recorded an unprecedented decline, with only 30% of teens reporting any sexual experience.

These numbers signify the sharpest drop ever documented by the survey, indicating a significant shift in adolescent behavior.

Analyzing the Findings

The CDC’s recent reports analyzing the survey data shed light on various aspects of teen sexual behavior. Not only did the survey indicate a decline in overall sexual activity, but it also revealed a decrease in the number of teens currently engaging in sex or having multiple partners. These findings suggest that the pandemic, which forced students into extended periods of isolation and increased adult supervision, significantly impacted their sexual behavior.

The Pandemic Effect: Isolation and Mental Health

While health officials generally perceive a decrease in teen sexual activity positively, as it can lead to a decline in teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, there are concerns related to social isolation and poor mental health. The decline in sexual activity among high school students appears to align with increased reports of social isolation and mental health challenges. It raises questions about the potential consequences of reduced interpersonal connections on teenagers’ overall well-being.

Laura Lindberg, a respected researcher at Rutgers University specializing in adolescent sexual behavior, suggests that the decline in sexual activity may be indicative of high school students developing fewer strong interpersonal connections.

Such connections are crucial for maintaining good mental health during the vulnerable teenage years. Lindberg believes that this situation presents an opportunity to reconsider whether teenagers are experiencing a lack of meaningful connections.

Shifting Perspectives: Reevaluating Sexual Behavior

The decline in teen sexual activity raises questions about the motivations behind this shift. Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, suggests that if the decline reflects a conscious decision by young people to delay sexual activity and reduce the number of partners, it may be considered a positive development. However, Ethier expresses concerns that the decline might also be a reflection of social isolation, which can have adverse effects on teenagers’ well-being.

Exploring Sexual Orientation: An Evolving Landscape

Interestingly, the survey conducted by the CDC also provides insights into changes in sexual orientation among high school students.

The data reveals a significant decrease in the proportion of students identifying as heterosexual, from approximately 89% in 2015 to around 75% in the latest survey. Simultaneously, the percentage of students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual increased from 8% in 2015 to 15%.

There was also a rise in the number of students identifying as “other” or questioning their sexual orientation. These changes are believed to be partly influenced by the increasing acceptance and reduced stigma associated with non-heterosexual identities.

The Road Ahead: Unraveling the Impact

While the 2021 survey provides valuable insights into the decline in teen sexual activity, it remains uncertain whether this trend will persist or if it is merely a temporary effect of the pandemic. The ongoing 2023 survey aims to shed more light on this matter. By continuing to monitor and analyze these trends, researchers and health officials can gain a deeper understanding of the complex factors shaping adolescent behavior.


In conclusion, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant decline in teen sexual activity. This transformative change has raised both positive and concerning implications. While it may reflect healthier decision-making and reduced risks of pregnancy and infections, it also highlights the potential negative impact of social isolation on adolescents’ mental health. Understanding these trends allows us to address the broader consequences and develop strategies to support the younger generation in navigating the challenges they face.