Why Abstinence-Only Sex Education Still Doesn’t Work

Yesterday seemed, at first, to be a bad day for supporters of comprehensive sex education.  In a landmark study of sixth-and-seventh-graders, researchers concluded that “sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity.”  In the wake of statistics from last week that revealed that teen pregnancy rates were rising (a finding that led many people to blame abstinence-only sex education programs), this is rather confusing. 

The Obama administration just nixed federal funding for abstinence-only education (a move that I and many others applauded), but others are using this new study to declare that we need to rethink abstinence-only education.  But that’s actually a very specious analysis.  Here’s why.

First of all, when we say “abstinence,” we can actually mean a lot of different things.  Many people expect abstinence-only sex education programs to promote refraining from sex until marriage.  But abstinence can actually mean a lot of different things – you can be abstinent for a weekend, or a month, or a year, and it can still be a healthy decision.  Certainly, encouraging abstinence for very young teens is a good idea.  It’s how the programs talk about sex, and contraception, that matters.  There’s nothing wrong with advocating for abstinence until a committed relationship – as long as adequate information is provided about STIs, contraception, and other crucial issues as well.

The programs in the study seem to be very different from the Bush administration’s “abstain until marriage” programs, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, pointed out.  According to the WaPo, “The curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.”

So…that’s not really abstinence-only, right?  That’s what we call comprehensive.

The bottom line, at least for me, is that it’s important to include information about abstinence in sex education programs.  But that’s hardly a revolutionary idea.  The whole point of comprehensive sex education is that it provides children and teens with a range of options, and allows them to make informed, intelligent decisions.  It acknowledges that not all people will wait until marriage to have sex, and tries to promote safety and good decision-making.

In the end, this seems to be an issue of semantics.  New programs called “abstinence-plus” education have begun to gain in popularity.  They supplement the old abstinence-only curricula with information about STIs and contraceptives – but can’t let go of the name.  Keeping abstinence in the title makes it sound like waiting until marriage is the real solution – but information about other issues is what makes the program work.  Thus, these programs are not really abstinence-only.  They’re actually what comprehensive sex educators have been advocating for this whole time.  Robin Marty (who also happens to blog for Care2) has a great article about this over at RHRealityCheck.

And that’s essentially what John B. Jemmott III, the study’s leader, concluded.  “The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy,” said Jemmott.  “There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms.  This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer.”

Say it with me, people: abstinence is part of comprehensive sex education.  But refusing to tell children about condoms will not work.

Photo courtesy of CoolVirginity.com.

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85 comments

Jo Recovering
Jo S.8 months ago

Thank you Amelia.

Akshans S.
Akshans S.5 years ago

its on the choice of the reader that whether he shud follow watis ritten or not because we cant say wat is rit n wat is ron coz its ever1 individual perception on how 2 take d things

Monica M.
Past Member 5 years ago

Sex should not be taught without giving children the wider picture of love, family, marriage and family and social responsibility. They should be encouraged to create a future which includes all these things.

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Michael Cozens
Michael Cozens5 years ago

Abstinence-only education has been shown to encourage the spread of STDs, as teens are unable to prepare for a sexual encounter without the necessary facts. Keeping information from people has never been able to keep them safe - knowledge is power, and forewarned is forearmed.

Kim C.
Kim C.5 years ago

Abstinence only sex ed doesn't work. The information the kids get is skewed and incomplete. Plus, all those kids will
find out they have been lied to.

Sex ed needs to include healthy attitudes towards sex plus all the other info about birth control and STD's. How to tell the difference between love and lust should also be included and a whole host of other subjects related to sex.

When I was in high school, sex ed consisted of a couple of hours during P.E. and the very basics of sex and pregnancy. A fair number of girls left school never to be seen again.

Carole Tokaruk
Carole Tokaruk6 years ago

To talk about condom and contraceptives in the same breath with abstinence gives a mixed message. They will go away confused about the message. It's better and safer to leave fire alone than to hand them the match and let them decide for themselves. As responsible adults we are to guide our teens. They need guidance , they need truth,they need love, they need the wisdom to not repeat the same mistakes past generations have made.

Alyssa C.
Alyssa C.6 years ago

Sex education should not be abstinence-only, nor should we be throwing condoms at teenagers and telling them "good luck". We need to have lengthy conversations with preteens and teens about sex. They need to talk about sex with an adult they can trust, whether it's a parent, an older sibling, or whoever they feel most comfortable talking about this with. It is only with all the right information that teenagers can make the right decision for themselves about whether to abstain or become safely sexually active, and they need to know that both choices are perfectly fine.

Ellinor S.
Ellinor S.6 years ago

thank you

Christina W.
.6 years ago

Show them picture of aborted babies and STDs show them pictures of homeless teens and teenage dads working three Mcdonald jobs. Make them get their hymyns checked and whoop their butts! Oh ya then offer them condoms.

Zoi Ioz
Zoi Ioz6 years ago

It's a little amusing and a little disconcerting to hear people say, "Of course abstinence is the right decision but we have to educate people just in case..." and "Abstinence-only education is wrong because people won't follow it, even though abstinence is the best thing." There's a seriously mixed message coming through.

Why is abstinence the best option for post-pubescent teens? What makes abstinence better than, say, a 16 year old girl on the pill who uses condoms and makes her own decisions about what to do with her body? What criteria are we using to establish when it's "okay" to have sex? Aren't these all individual things? Some explore early and responsibly; some wait for marriage; some probably should be abstaining. But to say that abstinence is the best choice for everyone, all the time, until they reach some ill-defined "future", is not far removed from simply not teaching comprehensive sex-ed at all. We're so quick to point out that fully educating people doesn't promote sexual activity-- we need to be aware that disapproval isn't going to discourage it. And that it's simply paradoxical to say, "this is birth control-- which you shouldn't use anyway because you shouldn't have sex anyway" and "this is how to protect yourself against STDs-- which you shouldn't have to do because you shouldn't have sex anyway".... does anyone else get that? It's like trying to have our cake and eat it, too.