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It's Easy to Poke Holes in the Latest Abstinence Study

Abstinence-only lovers were gleefully shouting I told you so’s yesterday when Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine released a study looking at an abstinence-only education program based in Philadelphia. The study determined that, “An education program for middle-schoolers promoting chastity significantly reduced their self-reported sexual activity two years later, compared with other sex education approaches.”

That’s nice and all, but before we decide that comprehensive sex ed is to blame for the ills of the world (oh, say our recent uptick in teen pregnancy), there are a few things to keep in mind.

First off, the abstinence program in question was not typical of abstinence-only programs in that it lacked a lot of the moralizing that many of these programs are known for. Additionally, it was not an abstinence-only-until-marriage program. Rather, it suggested that teens wait to have sex sex until they were "ready."

Another problem with using this study as a real measure of abstinence-only programs was the age and demographics of the participants. These were young African American 6th and 7th graders. Lylah M. Alphonse points out on that, “According to the Guttmacher Institute, which documented the rise in teen pregnancies, African-American teen pregnancies increased less than other groups, so an abstinence-only study that focused only on urban African-American middle-school students may not be easily applied to teenagers in general.

There is also something else to keep in mind. No one has ever said that abstinence-only programs have NO impact on when kids have sex. But what has been shown is that when they do have sex, even if it is a little older than some of their peers, it is often sex that is of the risky variety.

In fact, in a study of virginity pledges, (which are often a component of abstinence-only programs), researches Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner, found that while pledging to remain a virgin until marriage did tend to delay the onset of first intercourse, this delay was only temporary. Additionally, when virginity pledging teens ultimately did have sex, they were unlikely to use condoms, and as a result were more likely to contract an STD.

Countless research has shown the failures of abstinence-only programs. It's a real shame that a study like this will likely be cited as if it is the definite word on the subject.