Rates of risky sexual behaviors among high schoolers by race and sex in the United States

Last Updated on December 15, 2023

In this post, I document rates of risky sexual behaviors by race and sex among high schoolers in the United States. The data is based on surveys conducted by the CDC on nationally representative samples of high school students between 1991 and 2021. The data generally show patterns that are in line with other patterns of engagement in undesirable behavior: black students generally report greater rates of risky behavior than white and Hispanic students, who both report greater rates than Asian students. However, most of the racial disparities have decreased significantly in the past 10 years, leaving very small or even reversed gaps in the most recent surveys.

Of course, the data should be taken with a grain of salt since it is based on self-reports. However, it is nevertheless interesting to know what students are willing to report about their own sexual behaviors.

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)


The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) is a set of surveys conducted by the CDC which track risky behaviors among high school students. The surveys have been administered every other year between 1991 and 2021 on nationally representative samples of students in grades 9-12 (see this report on methodology). The surveys include questions on activities such as drug use, dietary behaviors, sexual behaviors, etc. The questionnaires for each year can be found here.

The surveys are given to a rather large number of students. For example, the 2017 survey included data from 14,956 questionnaires across 144 schools (page 5). The 1995 survey included data from 16,296 questionnaires across 155 schools (page 3). The following chart shows states and regions in the United States with representative data:

2021 YRBS Map for high schools

For this post, I will focus on data specifically concerning risky sexual behaviors which differ by race and sex. I collected most of the data in this post using the YRBS data tool that is made available by the CDC. This tool allows collecting data filtered by sex, race, grade, sexual orientation, etc. for each question from the questionnaire for a given year.

Note: One limitation of this data is that it is limited to students who are enrolled in a high school. Thus, the report may exclude students who dropped out of school. However, this should not distort the data too much since about 95% of 14 yo 17-year-old children are enrolled in school (Underwood et al. 2020).

Lifetime sexual intercourse


The first question about sexual behavior simply asks the respondents if they have ever had sexual intercourse. The question was “Have you ever had sexual intercourse?”.

There were not large difference between male and female students, although males were slightly more likely to report a history of sexual intercourse than females. The overall rate of sexual intercourse has declined significantly since about 2013.

There are large differences by race.

Black students reported a higher rate of sexual intercourse whereas Asian students reported a lower rate. However, in recent years, blacks have reported similar rates of sexual intercourse as white and Hispanic students. The largest gaps are found between black and Asian students in the 1990s, where about 75% of black but only about 25% of Asian students reported having sex.

When reporting the data separately by sex, racial disparities are larger among male students than among female students. Again, racial differences have reduced significantly in recent years.

The results for female students show a similar pattern, though the gaps are smaller.

I also disaggregated the data by grade, as it would be interesting to see how sexual behaviors differ as students progress through school. I reported the data separately for 9th grade and 12th grade students. For 9th graders, I separated the data for male and female students, because I found large difference by sex for 9th graders. I excluded Asian students because the number of Asian students was so low that the estimates were very sporadic by year.

Here is the data for male 9th grade students.

Until 2010, about 60% of black male 9th graders had engaged in sexual intercourse, whereas about 50% and 30% of their Hispanic and white counterparts had done so as well. However, since around 2010, rates of sexual intercourse have decreased significantly for all racial groups, with the racial gaps also shrinking as well.

Here is the data for female 9th grade students.

Again, there is a similar pattern, but racial differences are much smaller compared to the data for male students. In fact, the rates of sexual intercourse for black female 9th graders have matched the rates for their white and Hispanic counterparts since 2015.

Now, here is the data for 12th graders. I didn’t separate by sex since I didn’t notice any important sex differences for this group.

The racial differences for 12th graders were smaller than the racial differences for high schoolers in general. However, Asian students consistently reported much lower rates of sexual intercourse than other students. For the past 30 years, most non-Asian students (about 60 to 80%) consistently reported sexual intercourse whereas less than half of Asian students (25 to 50%) had done so as well.

One way to note the large racial differences is to compare the behaviors of black 9th graders to the 12th graders from other races. For example, throughout nearly every year, black male 9th graders reported higher rates of sexual intercourse than Asian 12th graders overall. Throughout in the 1990s and early 2000s, they also reported higher rates that were similar to or higher than white and Hispanic 12th graders.

Another interesting thing to note from this data is that the rates of intercourse for the male students are often significantly larger than the rates for the female students, particularly for the black 9th graders. There are a few possible explanations of this. One possibility is that female students are less likely to be sexually active, but the female students tend to have sex with more partners when they are sexually active. Another possibility is that the students are not being honest when answering the survey: either male students are overreporting their sexual behavior or female students are underreporting their sexual behavior (or both).

Sexual intercourse before 13 years of age


The next question about sexual behavior asked the respondents “How old were you when you had sexual intercourse for the first time?”. The data tool reports data indicating the percent of students who had sex before age 13. The results by sex are as follows.

Here are the results by race.

Again, there were extremely large differences by race which have gradually reduced over time. In the early 90s, black students were about 3 times as likely as other students to report having sex before age 13. However, in 2021, the racial differences were small.

Now, let us see the results by race for each sex separately. Here are the results for male students:

And the results for female students:

Again, there are extremely large differences by sex, particularly for black students. Throughout the 90s, between 30 and 50% of of male students reported having sex before age 13 whereas only about 10% of female students had done so as well. These disparities are likely to be explained by significant overreporting and/or underreporting by male or female students. Either that, or plenty of black children aged 12 or younger are having sex with older black females.

Sexual intercourse with 4 or more partners


The next question asks participants “During your life, with how many people have you had sexual intercourse?”. The data tool reports the percentage of students reporting sex with 4 or more partners.

Here are the results by sex.

Here are the results by race.

We see a similar pattern as the previous charts. There are large racial differences in the beginning years, which have significantly reduced in recent years.

Now, consider the results by race for each sex specifically. Here are the results for male students specifically.

And the results for female students specifically.

Assuming there is no overreporting or underreporting (unlikely), black male students have been about twice as likely as black female students to have sex with 4+ persons.

Next, I gathered data by grade to see if there are differences by grade. As I did above, I report data for both 9th graders and 12th graders. Here are the results for male 9th graders.

And the results for female 9th graders.

Next, I looked at data specifically for 12th graders, again for each sex specifically. Here are the results for male 12th graders.

And the results for female 12th graders.

Again, the racial gaps among female students are much smaller than the racial gaps among students.

Use of condoms


The survey asked participants if they or their partner used a condom the last time they had sex. This question was limited to the sample of respondents who were sexually active. Here are the results by sex.

The results are fairly stable over time without about 60 to 70% of males and 50 to 60% of females reporting condom usage. The difference may be due to the fact that males are more likely to be aware of their condom usage.

And here are the results by race.

Unlike the previous charts, there are no large differences by race. In fact, insofar as there are differences, the patterns are the reverse of the above, with black students being more likely to report engaging in healthier sexual behaviors than white and Hispanic students in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Use of birth control pills


The survey also asked participants if they or their partner used a birth control pill the last time they had sex. This question was limited to the sample of respondents who were sexually active. The data tool only released data for 2021, so I had to manually grab the answers for this question from yearly reports. I used data in reports published in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2011, and 2017.

Here are the results on birth control pill usage by sex.

Females are more likely to report usage of birth control pills, again likely because they are more likely to be aware of such usage.

Here are the results by race.

Unlike the data on condom usage, there are large racial differences on usage of birth control pills. Since 1995, about 20 to 30% of white students reported using the pill compared to only about 10% of white and Hispanic students.

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1 comment on Rates of risky sexual behaviors among high schoolers by race and sex in the United States

  1. I’d be interested if you could break down the data by generation because a large portion of Hispanic and Asians are foreign-born and are thus not as acculturated as blacks and whites are. It’d be interesting to see the if any stark differences emerge across generations.

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