U.S. teenagers are waiting longer to engage in sexual intercourse and an overwhelming majority of those who are sexually active report using contraception, according to a comprehensive...

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WASHINGTON — U.S. teenagers are waiting longer to engage in sexual intercourse and an overwhelming majority of those who are sexually active report using contraception, according to a comprehensive, well-respected government survey.

The report examining youth behavior found that more young men in particular have postponed sex — 46 percent were sexually active in 2002 compared with 55 percent in 1995 — and 91 percent of males who had sex in the previous three months used contraception.

For the first time since the government began its National Survey of Family Growth in 1973, more girls (47 percent) say they have had sex than boys (46 percent). Girls also report a high use of contraceptives (83 percent).

In many cases, researchers found, teens are using two types of contraception, such as the pill and a condom, in an effort to reduce the likelihood of pregnancy and a sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS.

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“The news is almost all positive,” said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “This data clearly underscores teens are being a bit more cautious about sex. This is a real sea change.”

The data comes amid a ferocious debate over the value of abstinence-only education, an approach President Bush has backed with $170 million in federal funding next year. Both supporters and detractors of abstinence-until-marriage programs claimed the report validated their sharply differing views. More neutral academics said the positive trends likely reflected a combination of abstinence education and instruction on safer sex.

The National Center for Health Statistics interviewed nearly 3,000 teenagers in the home. Researchers praise the periodic survey as one of the most authoritative sources on adolescents, in part because it reaches teens in and out of school and measures behaviors as well as attitudes.

With the exception of 18- and 19-year-old girls, teens of both genders showed significant declines in early sexual activity. Older girls and African-American females were the only groups that did not show a drop in sexual activity. At the same time, nearly 10 percent of young women described their first sexual encounter as “nonvoluntary.”

Hispanic teenagers were the least likely to use contraceptives, and 24 percent of Hispanic girls were likely to give birth before age 20, compared with 8 percent of white teens.

Some of the most dramatic improvement has come in the area of teen pregnancy. In 1991, 62 of every 1,000 females between 15 and 19 gave birth. A decade later, the rate fell to 43 per 1,000.

Even with such progress, U.S. teen birth rates remain among the highest in the developed world.

There are many theories for the lower rates in other countries, Kirby said, including wider availability of health care and information, less societal division over sex education and a higher poverty rate among American youth.

Given the growing number of young people using more than one type of contraceptive — as high as 30 percent in some groups — analysts said there is evidence to suggest teens are concerned about unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The survey did raise questions about where young people receive information on reproductive health. One-third of teens said they did not learn about contraception in school, and only half of young women and one-third of young men said they had discussed birth control with a parent before turning 18.