Study Shows Abstinence Sex Education Works, But Not Well Enough

A decade of abstinence education gives us ... more teen pregnancies.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

A new, federally-funded study brings striking evidence that abstinence-only education might actually work. Today's Washington Post gives the study front page play, and abstinence advocates are crowing that they've been proven correct. But there are a few problems with their "victory", most notably that while the findings are noteworthy and important, they miss the point. Since abstinence-only education--unlike abstinence itself--is not 100 percent effective, it's not the best approach.

Here's the nut of the study, as reported by the Post:

Only about a third of sixth- and seventh-graders who completed an abstinence-focused program started having sex within the next two years, researchers found. Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active.

It's great that the abstinence program they tested persuaded more kids to avoid engaging in sex, but fully one third of the kids studied still went ahead and did it. Where does abstinence education leave them? The abstinence program in question might be more effective in preventing teen sex, but the real world bottom line isn't preventing teen sex (I'll take "Things that are going to happen no matter what for five hundred, please, Alex") but preventing teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs, and this abstinence approach still leaves a third of the kids to fend for themselves.

But wait, there's more. As my former Boston Globe colleague Lylah Alphonse notes:

...critics contend that the abstinence-only program in the study wasn't representative of abstinence-only programs across the country in that it didn't take a moralistic tone (by portraying sex outside of marriage as inappropriate or disparaging condom use) and encouraged kids to delay sex until they were "ready," not necessarily until marriage. 

While an abstinence program not based on preachiness is certainly a novel approach, it might not be the stuff on which to base sweeping generalizations about abstinence-only education, which typically takes a rather different approach.

And there's real world data on the effectiveness of traditional abstinence-only education. The Bush administration spent, by one estimate, $1.5 billion on abstinence-only education in the last decade. Guess what we have to show for it, according to a study released just last week: more teen pregnancies, more teen births, and more teen abortions. According to a nonpartisan, nonprofit group called the Guttmacher Institute, teen pregnancy dropped more than 40 percent from 1990 until 2005. Teen births and teen abortions showed similar declines. Unfortunately positive results were not enough for the moral crusader crowd. Rates started to tick back up in the latter half of the decade. "It coincides with an increase in rigid abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which received major funding boosts under the Bush administration," said Heather Boonstra, a Guttmacher senior public policy associate.

As abstinence-only's biggest benefactor might say, that approach did a "heckuva job."

sex education
sexual health

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