Kvinne trer på kondom på plastepenis på et legekontor.
Adolescents should be allowed to practice putting on a condom earlier and repeat the process more often, says Trine Aarvold, a medical doctor at Sex and society.

1 in 3 Norwegian adolescents did not use contraception the first time they had sex

“We adults need to take more responsibility,” says Trine Aarvold, a medical doctor at Sex og society. She has her own tips for parents.

Every year, Norwegian adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 are asked about everything from family and mental health to drugs and sex in a large Norwegian survey called Ungdata.

Researchers at VID Specialized University and Innlandet Hospital Trust have now examined one of the survey questions in more detail.

The results surprised researcher Live Solveig Nordhagen, one of the people behind the new study.

As many as 32 per cent of adolescents in the survey did not use contraception when they had intercourse for the first time.

 Higher than previous surveys

“You can get some contraceptives for free when you are under the age of 22, and condoms are available free of charge at health centres. So this really surprised me when contraception is so easily accessible,” says Nordhagen.

Forskjellige kondomer ligger på et bord
Condoms are available free of charge from school nurses in many schools, but their availability varies.

This figure is higher than reported in previous surveys.

Admittedly, there has been little research in this field. But a handful of older studies from Scandinavia, the USA, and Croatia found a lower percentage of individuals who didn’t use a contraceptive.

Typically, only one in four adolescents had unprotected sex during their first intercourse. 

Important to establish good habits from the start

If the new figure is accurate, there is cause for concern.

The number of adolescents who have contracted chlamydia and gonorrhoea has exploded in recent years. In 2023, there were also more abortions among adolescents than in previous years, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (link in Norwegian).

Previous research shows that adolescents who have unprotected sex during the first time they have intercourse are more likely to drop contraception later.

That’s why it’s important to establish good habits from the start, Nordhagen notes.

As a rule, developing these habits means having condoms available, as many youths have not yet started using birth control pills, IUDs, or other contraceptives.

What happened to condom campaigns?

So why are so many adolescents debuting with unprotected sex?

Marja Leonhardt has a theory. The researcher, who also took part in the new study, is from Germany. There, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among adolescents are less common than in Norway.

After Leonhardt settled in Norway, she noticed a striking difference between the two countries.

To smilende damer
Marja Leonhardt (left) is a researcher at Innlandet Hospital Trust and an associate professor at VID Specialized University, and Live Solveig Nordhagen (right) is a researcher at VID, who previously worked at a youth health clinic.

“Norway doesn’t have any campaigns to promote condom use,” Leonhardt says.

She explains that in Germany, you find them everywhere, like at bus stops, adding that this is based on her personal observation.

Adults' responsibility

Trine Aarvold, a medical doctor at Sex and Society, doesn’t think Norway has had a strong culture of condom use either.

At the same time, she is not surprised by the results of the new study.

For young people today, condoms are almost never talked about, she points out. Not in TV series, social media, or elsewhere.

Therefore, adults need to take more responsibility to normalise their use, says the doctor, who meets young people daily at a sexual health clinic in the capital Oslo.

Trine Aarvold's tips for parents:

If you have adolescents at home, you should fill a box or drawer with condoms. Tell them that if they or their friends need condoms, they are free to take them. Also, ensure them that the box will be refilled without any questions.

“Seeing that the number of condoms in the box or drawer is shrinking should make you very proud and happy as a parent. It means that your kids are taking care of their own sexual health. It's like wearing a bike helmet or fastening a seatbelt,” says Trine Aarvold, a doctor at Sex og society.

At the Sex og society clinic in Oslo, visitors can take condoms from a small goody shelf.

A quarter made their debut before they turned 16

Sex education might also start too late, says researcher Live Solveig Nordhagen. 

Many have their first sexual experience before the age of consent.

In the new study, half of those who had had intercourse did so before they turned 16.

This corresponds to about a quarter of all the over 100,000 adolescents who responded to the Ungdata surveys.

“The word condom shouldn't be a word that is wrong and hard to say when you start middle school. It's not like a condom means sex and that it's gross; condom means protection,” says Aarvold.

Maybe we've missed the mark

In the new study, researchers investigated who did not use contraceptives.

Parents with lower education, poorer finances, and more use of alcohol and other substances were common factors.

Additionally, more boys than girls reported having unprotected sex during their first time.

At the Sex and society clinic, Trine Aarvold finds that adolescents are now less worried about pregnancy than they once were. This is especially true for boys, who may not have reflected on the fact that they will have some responsibility if their partner should become pregnant and does not want an abortion.

"I think we’ve missed the mark in how we conduct sex education for young people. We might not be talking enough about fertility,” Aarvold says.

Could be artificially high

At the same time, the results from the new study must be interpreted with caution.

The proportion of adolescents who had their first sexual experience without contraception could be artificially high, the researchers point out.

Some information was missing from the Ungdata survey.

The question about contraception, for example, does not distinguish between condoms or other contraceptives.

Perhaps some boys answered no to the question about contraception because they did not know that the girl was using birth control pills or an IUD.

Excludes same sex experiences

The survey also does not ask whether the survey participants had sex with someone of the same gender.

Many studies exclude queer sex. This is unfortunate, says Aarvold.

Although Maja Leonhardt would also have liked this information, she points out that the Ungdata survey is already extensive.

“It’s a very rich dataset,” she says.

In many ways, the dataset covers all of adolescence. And because so many youths respond to the survey, the responses are representative of Norwegian youth in general.


Nordhagen et al. Use of contraception during first sexual intercourse among Norwegian adolescents: a national cross-sectional studyBMC Public Health, 2024. DOI: 10.1186/s12889-024-19009-4


Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk

Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no

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