The Vindication of Abstinence-only Sex Education, The Anchor, February 12, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
February 12, 2010

Ever since the Bush Administration and a cooperative Congress increased funding for abstinence-only education programs, there has been a concerted effort to try to say that such instruction does not work to prevent teenage sexual activity, pregnancies, and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs). When the Alan Guttmacher Institute published data last month showing that after a decade of decreases, teenage sexual activity, pregnancy and STD rates began to increase in 2008, many who favor a condom-based education for teens seized on the news as “proof” that abstinence-only education does not work.

But the numbers actually demonstrate the exact opposite conclusion.

It was in 2007 that many states, like Massachusetts — misreading and exaggerating a study of abstinence-based education programs by Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton, NJ, which implied that abstinence education showed no noticeable impact on future sexual activity — began voluntarily to refuse federal funding for abstinence instruction. So, if teenage pregnancy, sexual activity and pregnancy rates rose in the first year after many states for political reasons voluntarily gave up funds for abstinence-only programs, honest reviewers should recognize that it implies that it is precisely the absence of abstinence-only education, rather than its presence, that has led to an increase in sexual activity among teens in 2008.

After the Obama administration last year eliminated more than $170 million in annual federal support for abstinence programs, we should anticipate sexual activity rates among teens to increase again in 2009.

Further vindication for the importance of abstinence-only education came last week in a landmark federally-funded study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Called by all sides in the sexual education debate a “game-changer,” it made the strong scientific case that not only does abstinence education work, but it may be the only element in sexual education curricula that works at all.

The study, which took place between 2001 and 2004, involved 662 African American Students in four public middle schools in an unnamed city in the northeastern United States. In order to participate in the program, the twelve year old students could not already have been sexually active. They were randomly assigned to participate in one of five different curricula with randomly assigned teachers: an eight hour program on abstinence; an eight hour program focusing on “safe-sex”; an eight or twelve hour program that taught both abstinence and “safe-sex” education; and finally an eight hour control program that did not talk about sex-ed explicitly at all, but rather was dedicated to ways to remain healthy like exercise and eating well.

Over the next two years, 47 percent of those in the control group who had received the general health curriculum had begun engaging in sexual activity. 52 percent of those who were taught “safe-sex” techniques had begun sexual relations, which indicates what common sense readily understands: that such education actually increases, rather than decreases, sexual activity. Of those students who received both “safe-sex” and abstinence education, the rate of sexual activity dropped to 42 percent, which is a clear sign that an abstinence message, even within the context of mixed messages promoting condom use, works to help decrease sexual activity. The greatest confirmation of the importance of abstinence education, however, came in the results of the group that had received only abstinence training: only 33 percent of the students had become sexually active in the next two years.

The study showed, in others words, that “safe-sex” training increased sexually activity by 11 percent, “comprehensive sex education” — involving both abstinence and “safe-sex” messages — decreased sexual activity by the same amount, and abstinence-only instruction decreased sexual activity by 34 percent. When you look at the onset of sexual activity, the contrast between the curricula was even starker. Compared to the control group, those who received “safe-sex” education were nearly twice as likely to begin sexual activity in the first three months after the training; those who had received abstinence-only and a 12-hour comprehensive training were half as likely. Talking about “safe-sex” without an abstinence message, the study demonstrated, clearly encourages the young not only to think about sex but to engage in it — as twelve year olds.

The question critics of abstinence-only education immediately asked upon hearing of the study was whether the lack of “safe-sex” instruction in the abstinence-only education put those students at greater risk of teenage pregnancy and STDs by a failure to teach them about the use of condoms. The study indicated, however, that there was no difference in condom use among those in the abstinence-only group in comparison with those in all three other groups. “A randomized controlled trial and a literature review found no effects of abstinence interventions on condom use,” the authors wrote. “Similarly, in this trial the abstinence-only intervention participants did not differ in self-reported consistent condom use compared with the control group.” 78 percent of students in the control group reported using condoms if they engaged in sexual activity, compared to 76 percent for abstinence-only, 76 percent in the comprehensive, and 74 percent in the safe-sex groups, differences that are not statistically significant.

The study shows, therefore, that sixth and seventh graders do not need a condom-based sexual education to learn about using condoms should they decide to engage in sexual relations; a “safe-sex” education doesn’t work to make them any “safer,” but only to encourage them to sexual behavior more and earlier. The study also indicates that those who receive a “safe-sex” education are no more likely than those who received no sexual education curriculum at all to use condoms — which raises the question about whether “safe-sex” education brings about any benefit at all. Moreover, the typical argument against abstinence-only education — that the young will be at higher risk of not using condoms if they engage in sexual activity, with the consequent higher rates of teenage pregnancies and STDs — seems to collapse with the data of this study.

There are some other relevant lessons to learn from the study.

First, no sexual education curriculum is full-proof. Even though the abstinence-only education was shown to be by far the most effective in discouraging teenage sexual activity and the pregnancies and STDs that may result from it, it still “failed” a third of the time because students chose to ignore the message. It failed, however, far less than other curricula did. This is important to remember, for example, whenever people try to point to someone like Bristol Palin and her teenage pregnancy as “proof” that abstinence-only education doesn’t work. They almost never point to the much higher rate of failure among other approaches. Abstinence-only education clearly doesn’t work all of the time, but it does work — and works better than other programs.

Second, even four hours of a solid abstinence message — as was used in the comprehensive curriculum, alongside four hours of “safe-sex” education in the eight hour program, and complemented by another four hour of basic human sexuality education in the twelve-hour program — has a marked effect in decreasing sexual activity among teens. The abstinence-only message for eight hours was most effective of all.

Lastly, no sexual education curriculum seems to be able to work without a serious abstinence component. The “safe-sex” curriculum not only failed to retard sexual activity but increased it.

The motto of the Obama administration’s sexual education funding, that it will give federal funding only to those programs that have been shown “scientifically” to work — which was a means, based on the erroneous interpretations of the Mathematica study, to eliminate abstinence-only funding — now needs to be applied to the results just published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Abstinence-only funding, which has been scientifically shown to be the most effective sexual education program of all, should be restored. And governors like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who have refused federal money in the past for abstinence-only education, should once again, for scientific reasons, accept the funding and promote abstinence-only curricula, so that sexual activity rates among teens may begin to fall in 2010, 2011 and beyond.

Sexual education without an abstinence message simply doesn’t work.