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Why Do Some Teens Remain Virgins and Some Become Sexually Active?

Lynn Blinn Pike, Ph.D., Former Human Development & Family Studies Specialist,
College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


In 2001, Lynn Pike and colleagues at the University of Missouri completed a federal grant in which they surveyed the same 1,112 teenagers in Missouri six times over four years and Dr. Pike believes that the findings are important for parents, educators, and other researchers. First, 

  • half of the 1,112 students were already sexually active at 15 years of age;
  • the majority of abstinent teens said they were virgins because they were afraid of getting a disease or getting pregnant rather than because of conservative or religious philosophies against having sex before marriage;
  • rural teens were not more likely to be abstinent that urban teens; and
  • compared to sexually active teens, abstinent teens could list more reasons why virginity was important.

In addition, as they moved through adolescence, abstinent teens were less likely to say that parental or religious influences were reasons for their virginity. Second, among the teens who were sexually active by the age of 15:

  • females were more likely than males to report drinking alcohol prior to having sex;
  • females were more likely to be involved with partners who were at least two years older;
  • there was little relationship between what teens said they would do to avoid pregnancy or disease in intimate relationships and what they subsequently reported doing; and
  • as they moved from fifteen to eighteen years of age, teens gradually increased their frequency of sex, number of sex partners, and times they have sex without practicing safe sex.

In addition, there were no differences in these increases, regardless of the teen's race, gender or place of residence.

Dr. Pike concluded by pointing out that, in spite of years of research on this topic, adults tend to point to minority, urban teens as having the highest rates of risky sexual behaviors and pregnancies. This did not appear to be the case in her research. The discrepancies may be due to the fact that few previous studies have been longitudinal and tracked the same teens over four years.

From the results described above, it is recommended that the following strategies be used with adolescents to build resiliency and to support behaviors that delay the initiation of sexual activity.

  1. The first strategy is to give the message that abstinence is the only 100% way of preventing pregnancy and disease. This may be particularly effective with females who identify these as personal fears.
  2. The second strategy is to give the message that drinking and sex are a deadly combination. It is critical that anti-drinking messages are provided to early and middle adolescents.


    Pregnancy and HIV prevention curricula rarely address abstinence from alcohol consumption as a strategy that can aid in delaying the initiation of sexual activity or practicing safe sex.


    Professionals in the fields of pregnancy and alcohol prevention need to be working more closely together. This could be facilitated by changes in public policy, school organization, and funding to promote closer collaboration.

  3. And the third strategy is to give abstinent adolescents "booster sessions" to prevent the tendency to report fewer reasons for being abstinent over time and to reinforce the risks of HIV and pregnancy. In schools, this may mean more emphasis on prevention curricula that are implemented across grades and disciplines.


Last Updated 12/08/2016







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