Risky sexual behavior down among black teens, but trouble still exists

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Black teens are engaging in less risky sexual behavior than two decades ago, according to new data presented today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 1991, black teens in the study were nearly two-thirds more likely than white teens to have had sexual intercourse, and three times as likely to have multiple sexual partners.

“African-American and Latino young people had much higher rates of risky behavior compared to white children [back then],” says Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention. “That’s been decreasing, especially among young African-Americans.”

This new data comes from the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is based in schools and administered to students in grades nine through 12. The sexual behaviors selected are those that put youth at highest risk for HIV and AIDS.

“From 1991 to 2011, we have seen substantial reductions in risk behavior of young people,” said Fenton, “as evidenced by more young people delaying when they have sex, more young people reporting consistent condom use, and fewer young people reporting having multiple sexual partners.”

Yet, with the exception of condom use, and despite the gains, black youth still have higher rates of risky behaviors compared to their white counterparts.

A look at the findings:

Ever had sexual intercourse

Overall, half of the high school students reported ever having sexual intercourse, declining slightly from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2011.

Among black students, the rates decreased from 82 percent in 1991 to 60 percent in 2011.

And, the number of white students who had ever had sex decreased from 50 percent in 1991 to 44 percent in 2011.

Multiple sexual partners (four or more)

Overall, nearly 20 percent of the high school students reported having four or more partners in 1991, compared to 14 percent in 2011.

Just under half of black students reported having 4 or more sexual partners in 1991; in 2001, it’s down to 25 percent.

However, the percentage of white students in 1991 who had multiple sexual partners was 15, later down to 11 percent in 2011.

Condom use

The overall number of sexually active students who used a condom during their last sexual encounter increased from 46 to 60 percent over the two decades.

Among black youth, condom use increased from less than half to 65 percent.

White youth had a similar increase — 46 percent in 1991, to 60 percent.

Even with these improvements, most of the progress occurred between 1991 and 2001, and there haven’t been significant gains since. Fenton worries about the halted progress.

“We are concerned that some of those gains we’ve made over the last 20 years could be at risk,” he says.

In addition, the rates of these sexual risk behaviors are still higher than desired, despite the progress made. Some blame the removal of sexual education classes from school curricula. Others say that due to effective HIV treatments, young people do not view HIV and AIDS as major problems anymore.

Regardless of the reason, Fenton says there’s much work to be done.

“If we’re really serious about creating an AIDS-free generation, it has to start with our youth,” he says.

The data was presented at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. and published as an early release in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.