Sex & Relationships

Studies Demonstrate Ab-Only Ineffectiveness ... Again

Abstinence-only programs contain medical inaccuracies and fail to help young people to change behavior.
Studies published in a special issue of the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, which we edited, conclude that abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs fail to change sexual behavior in teenagers, provide inaccurate information about condoms, and violate human rights principles. The articles make clear that abstinence-only programs are based on ideology and politics -- and go against the consensus of public health science.

Perhaps most relevant for federal and state policymakers is a review of the impact of 56 adolescent sexual behavior programs, comparing abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education programs. It finds that most abstinence-only programs of the type that have received $1.5 billion in federal funding do not help teens delay initiation of sex and that there is no scientific evidence to warrant their widespread use. In contrast, the review finds that most comprehensive sex education programs, which emphasize both abstinence and the use of protection for those who do have sex, were found to have a positive impact and should be replicated more widely. It concludes that a comprehensive approach to sex education is effective and does not send a confusing message to young people.

Another article in the special issue finds that three commonly used, abstinence-only curricula often provide inaccurate medical information to adolescents, including false or misleading statements about the effectiveness and safety of condoms. These abstinence-only curricula inflate the actual failure rate of condoms, suggesting that using condoms is somewhat like playing "Russian roulette" with HIV. These study results are consistent with earlier reviews that found medical inaccuracies throughout a wide sample of abstinence-only program curricula.

The reasons that many states have rejected federal abstinence-only funds are the subject of a third article. States refusing funding generally cite concerns about the efficacy and accuracy of abstinence-only curricula. Those states also tend to have progressive governments and strong advocates for comprehensive sexuality education. As of August 2008, 25 states had opted out of Title V funding including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Lastly, abstinence-only programs violate key human rights principles, as their silence or misinformation on condom effectiveness violates young people's right to information and to the means with which to protect their health. Abstinence-only approaches also impinge on the rights and responsibilities of teachers and health educators to provide accurate and complete information. The authors of this article examine both Texas and Uganda in their demonstration of the ways that human rights approaches can help to illustrate limitations on programs that restrict access to information.

In sum, the articles show that abstinence-only programs contain medical inaccuracies, fail to help young people to change behavior, and conflict with ethical standards.

This post first appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog.
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