Published in the October issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the study surveyed 820 adolescents nationwide via the Internet, a confidential method the researchers say is more likely to produce honest answers compared to a face-to-face or phone interview. Parents had to give consent.
The study found that 69.7 percent of boys and 68.4 percent of girls ages 16-17 have never had intercourse. Among 14-15-year-olds, the percentage is even higher -- 90.1 percent for boys and 87.6 percent for girls.
Richard Ross, cofounder of the True Love Waits abstinence movement, told Baptist Press the study proves that abstinence messages can and do work.
"Less than a third of high schoolers have ever had sex. And that includes large numbers who only have had sex once," said Ross, assistant professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. "Also, consider that more than 60 percent of sexually experienced teenagers regret what they have done . Combining those figures reveals that only a small segment of American teenagers are committed to a sexual lifestyle.
"The vast majority are entirely open to waiting on sex," Ross said. "Whether they do or not depends on which voices and influences around them are the strongest."
Among 16-17-year-olds, 16.1 percent of boys and 20.8 percent of girls had had intercourse in the previous month.
The study also asked teens about oral sex. Depending on the question asked, between 66 and 71 percent of 16-17-year-old boys and girls had never participated. For 14-15-year-olds, it was around 87 percent for both sexes who had never participated.
Jimmy Hester, co-founder of the True Love Waits movement and the coordinator of True Love Waits for LifeWay Church Resources, said the study confirms what he has seen.
"Our experiences with True Love Waits over the past 17 years have shown a willingness on the part of students to consider and adopt God's plan for sexual behavior outside the marriage relationship," Hester told BP. "Once they understand the reasons behind sexual abstinence until marriage, and recognize the severe consequences when not practiced, most are willing to commit to it. The results of these types of reliable studies indicate trends toward better sexual behavior among students."
Ross said the data should impact what programs the federal government promotes. It should also encourage churches, he said.
"But as a youth leader, I see this as an opportunity for parents and churches to step into the gap. It is time for every pastor and every parent to ask, 'How long has it been since we saw precious teenagers standing in the altar of our church, making promises of purity to Almighty God, surrounded by the community of faith?"'
Ross added, "I am more concerned about churches that have moved away from a clear True Love Waits challenge every year than I am about funding shifts in Washington. For the children of believers, the clear voices of parents, youth leaders and the congregation carry far more weight than secular programs."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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