ATLANTA -- The sexual revolution, thought dead in the age of AIDS, is apparently alive and thriving among a new generation of teen-age girls.
While the fear of AIDS has led to a decline in promiscuity among women over age 20, a study released yesterday found that more girls than ever before are having premarital sex in their mid- to late teens.
"Clearly, teens are not delaying the initiation of sexual activity," said Sevgi Aral, a sociologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control.
In 1970, when "free sex" was in vogue, less than 5 percent of the nation's 15-year-old girls were having intercourse. In 1988, when "safe sex" was the watchword, more than 25 percent of the 15-year-old girls surveyed reported being sexually active.
Among 19-year-olds, the rate has increased from 48 percent two decades ago to 75 percent in 1988, the year the CDC survey was conducted.
"We are probably into the second generation of this trend," said William Pratt, a statistician with the CDC's Center for Health Statistics in Washington. "Those women who were 19 years of age in 1970 would be the mothers of some of the girls we are seeing now."
The CDC surveyed 8,450 women between the ages of 15 and 44. Their responses revealed a steady increase since 1970 in the percentage of teen-age girls describing themselves as sexually active.
Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of AIDS, the percentages posted their biggest jump between 1985 and 1988 -- at a time when the nation was being bombarded with information about the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Mr. Aral said other surveys have confirmed that the fear of AIDS has changed the sexual behavior of many Americans, but teen-age girls are not among them.
"Certain dimensions [of the sexual revolution] have been changing in a preventive direction," Mr. Aral said. "But the age of sexual debut -- that
dimension of the sexual revolution -- is not following in the footsteps of the other dimensions."
Part of the reason may be that teen-agers are assailed by conflicting messages, Mr. Aral said. While sex-education classes advise them to hold off or proceed with caution, television, music videos, movies and magazines continue to glorify sex.
Another obstacle for safe-sex messages is the adolescent perception of invincibility. "Teens are much better at convincing themselves that it won't happen to them," he said.
Increased sexual activity also increases the chances that it will, indeed, happen to them. The CDC study found that the younger a girl becomes sexually active, the more sexual partners she is likely to have -- and the greater the likelihood of contracting venereal diseases.
The survey found that 45 percent of all those who engaged in sex before age 18 had subsequently had more than three partners. Of those who waited until after their teens to become sexually active, only 1 percent reported having more than three partners. At the same time, compared with other age groups, teen girls reported higher rates of gonorrhea and bacterial infections.
The report concluded that the more sex partners a person has, the higher the risk of contracting viral infections such as hepatitis, herpes and AIDS.
"What this means is bad news as far as the health consequences from the increase in sex during adolescence," Mr. Aral said. "The main reason for concern is that this increase in sexuality may lead to health problems later in life."