Whether It's Sex or Drugs, Abstinence-Only Education Simply Doesn't Work

Abstinence-only education simply doesn't work, no matter how much Sarah Palin or George Bush dream it will.
Recently it was revealed that the 17-year-old daughter of the Republican vice presidential nominee is pregnant. This announcement was particularly ironic, as the GOP platform advocates abstinence-only sex education.

This high-profile pregnancy is stirring a larger debate about how sex education is taught in the United States. What is clear is that despite strong messages urging young people to abstain, most teenagers, even those who have been admonished time and time again, are not listening.

Our national surveys confirm doubts about abstinence-only education. Last year, a study commissioned by Congress revealed that students who receive abstinence-only sex education are just as likely to be sexually active as those who do not. This research is consistent with the conclusions reached two years ago by a joint Yale-Columbia study of teenage virginity pledges.

The same is true for the other big concern about teenagers: drug use. Look at abstinence-only drug education, and you get the same disappointing results as with sex education. More than two decades ago, as part of the escalating war on drugs and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, Congress implemented the 1986 Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. Federally funded drug prevention education for teens was mandated to adhere to a strict abstinence-only message.

And so it is today, with information going beyond pure abstention -- such as the need for designated driver programs -- just as verboten as discussions of condoms in abstinence-only sex education.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) continues to restrict its funding of school-based drug education to abstinence-only programs. And the drug czar's office is now, in addition to its media campaign, aggressively pushing across-the-board, suspicion-less drug testing as the "silver bullet" that will absolutely ensure abstinence among secondary school students.

These strategies have proven just as unsuccessful as abstinence-only sexuality education. Studies of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), still the most popular school-based prevention program in the United States, have consistently shown that there is no difference in terms of drug use between students who had D.A.R.E. and those who did not. Even the effectiveness of the newer "science-based" programs, often delivered inadequately, is questionable.

As for the drug czar's billion-dollar anti-drug media campaign, several researchers, as well as the Government Accountability Office, have shown that the ads are ineffective and sometimes actually counterproductive in convincing teens to abstain.

The newest brainchild of the Bush administration, random student drug testing, is being foisted upon school districts despite a large federally funded study, conducted by National Institute on Drug Abuse scientists, showing no difference in rates of drug use in schools with and without drug testing. Objections have also been raised by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and other national organizations representing educators and public health and social workers.

Take a look at annual assessments of the prevalence of teen drug use for even more evidence of the failure of abstinence-only education.

The 2007 federally funded "Monitoring the Future" survey of high school students revealed that 73 percent used alcohol (a drug by any measure) by the time they graduated, and 46.8 percent admitted to trying illicit drugs. While alcohol use has declined slightly, the use of prescription painkillers and other psychoactive medications is on the rise, with last month's annual back-to-school survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse showing that 24 percent of the teens surveyed said they know one or more friends or classmates who abuse prescription drugs or use them without a prescription.

Most Americans know by now that "Just Say No" and other abstinence-only mandates as the sole basis of prevention do not work. While encouraging abstinence, programs should offer prevention education based on science rather than scare tactics.

The next administration can make a big impact on both sex and drug education and move prevention strategies in a positive direction if it has the gumption to look beyond the decades-old failures of the past. It's time to change the "No" to "Know" in our approach to sex and drugs.
Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph.D., directs the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance. She is the author of Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs and Drug Education. Jennifer Kern manages the Safety First Project of the Drug Policy Alliance.
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Election 2018