I have long viewed abstinence-oriented sex education as an exercise in moral or religious dogma rather than a useful step toward public health. But a new study suddenly makes abstinence education, at least for ‘tweens and early teens, seem worth another look.
The study, as reported recently in The Washington Post, suggests that young people will pay attention to the abstinence message if it is couched in realistic terms. To adolescents, realistic means deferring sex until they are ready, but not necessarily until marriage, which has been the focus of earlier classroom efforts that were studied to gauge the effectiveness of abstinence education.
In the latest report, sixth- and seventh-graders participated in one of four eight-hour sessions. One focused solely on delaying sexual intercourse, the second focused solely on increasing condom use, the third combined the lessons of the first two, and the fourth was a control that focused on other health issues unrelated to sexual activity. Two years after the sessions, researchers followed up with the students and asked them about their levels of sexual activity and condom use.
According to the students’ reports, 33 percent of those who went through the abstinence program started having sex within the next two years, compared to 52 percent of those who were taught only about safe sex. About 42 percent of students who went through the comprehensive program and 47 percent of students in the control group reported that they had started having sex.
The apparent reason the results of this study differed so dramatically from earlier research, which showed abstinence-only education to be ineffective, is the shift of focus from marriage to readiness. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the average American woman does not marry until age 26, and the average man waits until age 28. Many never marry. Expecting people to wait until marriage to become sexually active is therefore unrealistic, and even an adolescent knows that.
There is a big difference between a 12- to 14-year-old child and a 27-year-old unmarried adult. While marriage-focused programs obscure this difference by lumping both into the category of not yet married, programs that focus on emotional readiness highlight the differences, helping children see that they are not yet prepared for the potential consequences of sexual activity. The new study indicates this approach can work.
Programs advocating abstinence until marriage were in vogue during the administration of former President George W. Bush. But last month, a new study by the Guttmacher Institute indicated that, during Bush’s presidency, teen pregnancy rates, which had been declining for nearly a decade, may have turned around and begun to rise.
Critics of abstinence-only education were quick to interpret that data as a sign that Bush’s policies had failed. Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said, “This new [Guttmacher] study makes it crystal clear that abstinence-only sex education for teenagers does not work.” Initially, I had the same reaction, but the latest data makes me think Richards’ interpretation may be an unhelpful overstatement.
One of the most noteworthy findings of the new sex-education study was that children who participated in the abstinence-only program were no less likely to use protection when they did have sex. Since, even in the abstinence group, about a third of students became sexually active during the two-year period, it is critical to ensure that abstinence programs do not deter the use of condoms and other contraceptives. This has been a problem for previous abstinence-focused programs that delivered more moralistic messages.
When we take into account the significant and apparently inevitable level of sexual activity among young teens, even after exposure to a reasonable message about abstinence, the most effective approach to sex education would seem to be a combination of abstinence-focused programs and necessary information on safe sex. While we need more research before we have a clear answer about how well abstinence-only programs can work, the researchers responsible for this new study have done us all a favor by showing that abstinence promotion is not necessarily a dead end.
Teenage sex has always been a topic fraught with emotion and layered with cultural and religious overtones that are best addressed at home. But it also is a public health matter, which is why it belongs in the classroom, too. Mature adults recognize the harm that too-soon sex can do to a young person. The goal of sex education in the schools is to help young people understand and address the risks. Toward that end, we ought to put ideology aside and focus on finding, and doing, whatever works best.