Abstinence-only education gets a boost

A new study of an abstinence-only sex-ed curriculum
 showed it to be more successful at delaying teen sex than a comparable “safe sex” program — and even one that combined abstinence and safe-sex messages:

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.

The findings are the first clear evidence that an abstinence program could work.

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“I think we’ve written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence,” said John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who led the federally funded study. “Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used.”

An LA Times report breaks down the numbers:

Over the two years after taking the classes, 48.5% of those in the control group reported sexual activity, compared with 33.5% of those in the abstinence-only group. About 52% of those taught only safe sex reported sexual activity, and about 42% of those in the comprehensive class made a similar report. 

That’s a huge drop from the control to the abstinence group — and, interestingly, a slight increase from the control to the safe-sex group. 

What I find most interesting about the study, though, is the way so many are quick to undercut its findings. The LA Times article alone carries all kinds of caveats: that we shouldn’t base public policy on just one study, that “abstinence plus” programs (the “plus” referring to safe-sex instruction) are still the most successful (even though these results clearly dispute that), that this abstinence program isn’t like all those other “moralistic” abstinence programs, and so on. Mollie Hemingway at GetReligion compares the cool reception this report is receiving with the breathless news reports that accompany any study implying that abstinence education might not be successful.

Absolutely more research should be done — but hopefully we can now drop the pretense that abstinence-only education doesn’t work.



  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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