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TEENS HAVING SEX AT EARLIER AGES; PREGNANCIES DROP

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America's young people are becoming sexually active at an earlier age, but their pregnancy rates are lower now than they were 20 years ago, according to a detailed study that contradicts many common beliefs about teenage sexuality.

About 1 million teenage girls get pregnant annually and roughly half of them give birth, according to a two-year study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York.Those numbers could be much higher, but today about 70 percent of sexually active kids use contraception, a significant improvement from 10 years ago when just half used some kind of birth control, the institute reported.

"I think everyone pretty much agrees that it isn't a good thing for a 17-year-old to get pregnant, including the kids themselves, and they are obviously trying to do something about it," said Jeannie I. Rosoff, director of the institute, which specializes in reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education.

Pregnancy rates for "sexually experienced" teenagers fell 19 percent between 1972 and 1990, according to institute research drawn from federal statistics.

At the same time, the report confirmed social trends that many Americans find disturbing: About half of all girls and three-quarters of all boys have had sexual intercourse by the time they are 18 years old. Twenty years ago, about one-third of the girls and half the boys had had sex.

However, this activity remains mostly among older youths. Today, about one-quarter of 15-year-old boys and 10 percent of the 15-year-old girls are sexually experienced.

One of the study's most disturbing findings was that the overwhelming majority of teenage girls under 15 who have had sex were forced to in some way, often by a much older male.

Roughly 70 percent of the girls who had sex before turning 14 were coerced and "only a small percentage of the men in these cases were teenagers," Rosoff said.