A new study concludes that abstinence-only education had a significant and long-term effect in reducing teen sexual activity. “The abstinence-only intervention reduced sexual initiation,” reports the study, which is featured in the most recent issue of the medical journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, published by the American Medical Association.
The study found that a short eight-hour abstinence program reduced sexual activity among youth by a third. Despite the brevity of the abstinence training the effects lasted a full two years after students left the classroom. Moreover, if students who took the abstinence course did become sexually active they were not less likely to use contraception.
In contrast, study found that alternative types of sex ed failed. “Safe sex” programs (which promote contraception only) and “comprehensive sex ed” programs (which teach both abstinence and contraceptive use), had no effect on teen sexual behavior. These programs neither reduced teen sex nor did they increase contraceptive use among teens, which is their major emphasis.
These findings are based on a randomized controlled experiment, the gold standard in program evaluation and designed to produce unbiased results. The study analyzed 662 African-American 6th and 7th grade students in four public middle schools serving low-income communities in a northeastern U.S. city. They were randomly assigned to participate in an eight-hour abstinence-only program, an eight-hour “safe sex” program, an eight- or twelve-hour comprehensive sex education program, or a general health-only, non-sex ed program, which represented the control group in the experiment.
Bolstered by its rigorous randomized controlled design, this study provides important new findings. It strengthens the existing body of empirical evidence on the effectiveness of abstinence education. A 2008 Heritage study, for example, reviewed 15 studies of authentic abstinence programs and found that 11 of the 15 studies reported positive behavioral changes among teens.
These new findings—that abstinence education reduced teen sex, without causing any adverse decline in contraception use, while “safe sex” and comprehensive sex ed programs failed to reduce teen sex or increase contraceptive use—seriously counter the ineffectiveness claim made by opponents of abstinence education.
Opponents of abstinence are often motivated by ideology than by social science research.
In recent weeks, abstinence foes launched yet another attack, attributing the rise in teen pregnancy and birth rates, after more than a decade of dramatic decline, to federally-funded abstinence programs. However, a funding analysis by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that, in the fiscal year 2008, for every dollar the department spent on abstinence education, it spent $4 on comprehensive sex education and family planning services targeting teens. In FY2008, the department spent $176.5 million on abstinence education. By contrast, pregnancy and STD prevention programs and family planning services for teens received $609.3 million .
Sadly, despite the social science evidence, the Obama administration and Congress have eliminated all federal spending on abstinence education and, instead, have created additional funding for comprehensive sex education.