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Sexual intercourse at an early age, having multiple sexual partners, and unprotected sex put teens at risk of sexually transmitted infection (STI) and of unwanted pregnancy. Since the mid-1990s, some of these behaviours have become less prevalent, while the prevalence of others has not changed or has increased. However, trends differ by age, gender and jurisdiction.
This article presents recent trends in sexual behaviours among Canadian teenagers, based on nationally representative surveys conducted in 1996/1997, 2003 and 2005.
In 2005, 43% of teens aged 15 to 19 reported that they had had sexual intercourse at least once, down from 47% in 1996/1997 (Table 1). All of the decline reflected the behaviour of young women, among whom the proportion reporting ever having had intercourse fell from 51% to 43%. The proportion of young men who reported having had intercourse remained at 43%.
Number and percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds who had sexual intercourse at least once, by gender, age group and province, Canada excluding territories, 1996/1997, 2003 and 2005
Throughout the period, the percentage of teens reporting sexual intercourse was higher at older ages. About one-third of 15- to 17-year-olds had had intercourse, compared with about two-thirds of 18- and 19-year-olds.
In 2005, 58% of Quebec teens reported having had sexual intercourse, significantly above the estimate for the rest of Canada (the other provinces combined); the proportions were 37% in Ontario and 40% in British Columbia, which were significantly lower. The remaining provinces did not differ from the rest of Canada.
From 1996/1997 to 2005, the proportion of Nova Scotia teens reporting that they had had sexual intercourse rose from 31% to 49%, while the figure fell from 41% to 37% among those in Ontario. In Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, 2005 figures were down substantially from 2003 estimates.
Early sexual intercourse
The younger a person is when he or she becomes sexually active, the longer they are at risk of unwanted pregnancy or of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.1 Research has also shown that an early age at first intercourse is related to risk behaviours such as unprotected sex, alcohol consumption and smoking.2-5 The proportion of teens who reported having had sexual intercourse before they were 15 years old fell from 12% in 1996/1997 to 8% in 2005 (Table 2). Among girls, the percentage reporting intercourse before age 15 decreased, while among boys, the figure did not change significantly. As well, in 2005, the proportions of both 15- to 17-year-olds and 18- and 19-year-olds reporting early sexual intercourse were significantly lower than in 1996/1997.
Number and percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds who had sexual intercourse before age 15 or at ages 15 and 16, by gender and age group, Canada excluding territories, 1996/1997, 2003 and 2005
The number of sexual partners is an important indicator of sexual risk behaviour, particularly with respect to contracting an STI.6, 7 In 2005, about one-third of the 15- to 19-year-olds who had had intercourse in the past year reported having done so with more than one partner, around the same percentage as in 1996/1997 (Table 3). Throughout the period from 1996/1997 to 2005, males were more likely than females to report having had multiple partners in the past year, a finding consistent with other studies.4-8 Having had sex with more than one partner was more common at older ages. In 2005, 36% of 18- to 19-year-olds reported having had multiple partners in the past year, compared with 29% of 15- to 17-year-olds.
Number and percentage of sexually active 15- to 19-year-olds who reported having multiple partners in past year, by gender and age group, Canada excluding territories, 1996/1997, 2003 and 2005
Condom use is a means of preventing unplanned pregnancies and reducing the risk of contracting a STI. In 2005, three-quarters of sexually active 15-to-19-year-olds who had been with multiple partners in the past year and/or who were not married or in a common-law relationship reported using a condom the last time they had intercourse (Table 4). Males were considerably more likely than females to report having used a condom, a finding consistent with other studies.1, 2, 9-11 From 2003 to 2005 (the only years for which nationally representative and comparable data are available), the proportion of sexually active young women who reported condom use rose from 65% to 70%; among young men, the proportion remained around 80%.
Number and percentage of sexually active 15- to 19-year-olds who used a condom the last time they had intercourse, by gender, age group and province, Canada excluding territories, 2003 and 2005
In 2005, condom use was more common at ages 15 to 17 than at ages 18 and 19. While 81% of the younger group reported that they had used a condom the last time they had intercourse, the figure for older teens was 70%. Previous research has shown condom use to decrease with age, to be less common among oral contraceptive users, and to be more common among individuals in short-term relationships.2, 4, 20-24
In 2005, the percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds who reported that they had used a condom the last time they had sex was significantly higher in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Alberta, and significantly lower in Quebec, compared with the rest of Canada. Nova Scotia was the only province where teen condom use increased significantly between 2003 and 2005.
Based on a representative sample of 15- to 19-year-olds, the proportion of teens who had had sexual intercourse at least once declined between 1996/1997 and 2005. As well, the proportion who reported becoming sexually active at a very early age decreased. However, among those who were sexually active, there was no significant change in the likelihood of having multiple partners or, for males, using condoms. So while some adolescents have adopted measures to reduce their risks of sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancy, others report high-risk behaviour.
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