Abstinence-only Education

Back in March of 2008 I wrote about a study showing the shortcomings of abstinence-only education. Another article is out presenting the inadequacies of abstinence-only education. This issue has become a larger debate in recent years because of President Bush’s promotion of abstinence-only education by increasing funding “from $73 million a year in 2001 to $204 million in 2008. That’s a grand total of $1.5 billion in federal money.”

However, the findings of abstinence-only education do not supporting its continuance. The primary researcher:

found absolutely no difference in their [students provided abstinence-only education] sexual behavior, or the age at which they began having sex, or the number of their partners” [when compared to students who received other forms of sex-ed and] the only difference was that the group that promised to remain abstinent was significantly less likely to use birth control, especially condoms, when they did have sex. The lesson many students seemed to retain from their abstinence-only program was a negative and inaccurate view of contraception.

A primary contention of the article writer is that “Programs mandated to teach only ‘the social, psychological and health gains (of) abstaining from sexual activity’ and to warn of the dangers of having sex have been awarded failing grades for truth and effectiveness.” The study writer says that teachers of abstinence-only education are “required to give inaccurate information.”

Fortunately, my high school does provide more than an abstinence-only education program. Unfortunately, the teachers are quite limited in what they are mandated to teach. Students across Washington State have a faulty understanding about what constitutes “sex” and about the transmissions of diseases. A student newspaper in Puyallup attempted to highlight this problem, and, though they created quite a bit of controversy, they did try to voice the notion that sex education in high school is not enough if not ineffective. More education is needed.

Furthermore, yesterday’s article also detailed problems with how abstinence-only education results are reported.

What makes this study important is simply this: “virginity pledges” are one of the ways that the government measures whether abstinence-only education is “working.” They count the pledges as proof that teens will abstain. It turns out that this is like counting New Year’s resolutions as proof that you lost 10 pounds.

In truth, I recognize my own liberal views on this topic, and I would actually advocate for more sex education at the middle school level. My students, according to their own accounts, seem to get most of their information from friends, television, movies, and the internet at quite an early age. Still, even I don’t know how much the schools should take on versus what parents should be responsible for teaching; regardless, the students are at risk if they are not armed with accurate information.

The artcile’s writer also mentions what I believe to be at the heart of the debate: this is a problem of “ideology over science” and a problem with how issues are framed.

Abstinence-only education “has been framed, says Bill Albert of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as a battle between ‘those who wanted virginity pledges and those who wanted to hand out condoms to 14-year-olds.’ Obviously, this oversimplification (creating a black-white logical fallacy) divides people and eliminates true discourse. Instead of informing everyone fully, leaders use personal morality to trump full disclosure. In the end, the lack of information provided to students partially contributes to the 60% of teens who have sex prior to graduation and the 730,000 teen pregnancies each year.


2 thoughts on “Abstinence-only Education

  1. The Science Goddess

    I think it’s important to also determine our goals with sex education. My personal hope would be that the bottom line is simply “Be healthy.”

    The problem with abstinence-only programs is not that they are ineffective—as you include in your first quote, kids who participate in such programs have sex and with as many partners as those in other programs. They are just ineffective at discouraging kids from having sex at all. And frankly, I’m not sure that’s a reasonable goal.

    This is not to say that we should be promoting sex for children…but, if the bottom line in the research is showing us that we do not have a way to impact when kids become sexually active, then we have to focus on what we can: preventing negative consequences as a choice to engage in that behavior, such as STDs (or “VD” as it was known in my day). I think we also have to be able to tell kids that sex is not bad or unnatural. Sure, we as adults believe you will be happier later if you wait to have sex, but if you can’t wait, then please be careful and let us help you stay healthy. That may be the best we can do.

  2. Mrs. Chili

    Where are the parents in all of this? I’m making damned sure that my kids understand what’s what – I’m not relying on the public education system to teach them about sex or STDs or pregnancy or healthy relationships, THAT’S for sure…


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