The Real Scoop on the (In)Effectiveness of Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

Abstinence-only sex education has been a detriment to our nation's sexual health that we seemed to be leaving behind. The Obama administration's decision last year to cut funding for abstinence-only programs in favor of scientifically reliable programs marked a new opportunity to provide young people with the tools that they needed. As an organization that promotes sexual learning throughout the lifespan, the NSRC was excited by the prospect of national sex education that could provide our nation's youth with tools for a sexually healthy present and future.

That's why we were alarmed by a recent Washington Post article by Rob Stein about a study of an abstinence only program that was more effective than comprehensive sex education. The study showed that the abstinence-only program had slightly higher levels of students postponing sex during the research period, but the article framed the results as a major turning point for abstinence-only sex education, one that could potentially alter the future landscape of sex education by continuing abstinence-only sex education.

However, the reality of the study in question is that it does not support most abstinence-only sex education, and particularly does not show that the abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education that was promoted by the Bush administration is effective. The article acknowledges, albeit after allowing conservative voices to have their say, that various critics have noted that the program under review "did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms". James Wagoner of Advocates for Youthoutlines how, for these reasons and others, this program does not represent most abstinence-only programs and would not have met Bush-era requirements for federal funding. While conservative organizations might still be trying to portray this research as validating abstinence-only sex education, Robin Marty at RH Reality Check points out that the program in this study, by teaching young people both to wait for sex until they are ready and by providing them safe-sex information for when they are, is more in line with comprehensive sex education programs and the research that has shown their effectiveness.

In addition to downplaying the aspects of the study that might undermine its support for abstinence-only programs, the article almost entirely neglected the abundance of research that puts the validity of abstinence-only sex education into question. A 2008 issue of our journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy highlighted a number of the areas in which abstinence-only sex education has failed, from an inability to delay teen sex in most cases, to creating a public health risk through false information about condoms, and generally denying the human rights of teens through denying their access to health information. Evidence against abstinence-only sex education is so extensive that in late 2007 a group of leading sexuality researchers sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging Congress to end funding for these ineffective programs.

As an organization that supports sexual health through life-long learning, we can only voice our disappointment and dismay at this article. While delaying sexuality until one is ready is a healthy decision, attempting to deny youth their sexuality through lying and misinformation only causes greater problems. As James Wagoner points out in his post, abstinence-only programs do not delay teen sexuality forever, but merely postpones the intiation of youth sexuality into the late teens. If 70% percent of youth are still sexually active by the time they are 19, what can we expect to happen to them when they've been denied access to accurate sexual health information? Is slightly delaying the onset of youth sexuality a better outcome than providing youth with accurate health information to protect themselves and their peers? This question is even more pressing when the vast majority of research shows that abstinence-only sex education programs don't even delay teen sexuality as well as programs that provide youth with accurate health information.

Here at NSRC, we support the continued efforts to provide people of all ages with the information they need to live a sexually healthy and happy life. While the current political climate is one in which deception and misinformation have become standard tools of the trade, it's our stance that through providing people with real knowledge, we can make a positive impact on their lives and ours.


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