Yesterday, a new study was released showing that abstinence education programs were effective in reducing teen sexual activity while conventional safe sex programs had no positive effects. Ironically, this finding comes at a time when President Obama and the Pelosi/Reid Congress have abolished all federal funding for abstinence and created a new funding stream to promote so-called “comprehensive” sex education. In order to understand this issue, it is important to dispel common myths about abstinence education and sex ed in general.
Myth: Abstinence Programs Don’t Work. The newly released study (which appeared in the February 2010 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, published by the American Medical Association) was far from the first demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence education. Prior to the current study, there had been 15 scientific evaluations of abstinence education, 11 of which had shown that abstinence programs were effective in reducing sexual activity. (See this 2008 Heritage paper for a review of these earlier studies.) However, before this week, the mainstream media had simply ignored the abundant evidence in favor of abstinence.
Myth: Under the Bush administration, the federal government funded only abstinence education. In fact, a funding analysis by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that, in recent years, the federal government spent four dollars on condom education and distribution for teens for every dollar spent on abstinence. Obama and Pelosi have now abolished all federal funding for abstinence. The left wing advocates who currently run Congress do not want a balance between abstinence and safe sex; they want “safe sex” to be the only message available to young people.
Myth: Comprehensive sex ed programs emphasize abstinence. Advocates for comprehensive sex ed contend that these programs stress abstinence as the first option and talk about contraceptives only as a fallback if students become sexually active. This is false. In the real world, “comprehensive” curricula barely mention abstinence, and, when they do, the treatment is often derisive. Abstinence is taught as a minor option for the hyper risk averse or for those who are simply too immature for the real rewards of teen sex. Teen sexual activity is trumpeted as the acceptable social norm. In reality, “comprehensive” sex ed programs are nothing more than old style “safe sex” programs hiding under a new label. Their message to teens is simple: hook up on Friday night but wear a condom. (See this paper on messages in comprehensive sex ed)
Myth: Parents want “comprehensive” sex ed. In reality, 91 percent of parents want youth taught to abstain from sexual activity until they have at least finished high school. Nine out ten teens agree with this message. All abstinence programs support this message. By contrast, no “comprehensive” sex ed curricula teach this core value. Instead, “comprehensive” sex ed programs teach that it is okay for teens to be sexually active as long as they use contraceptives. Only nine percent of parents approve of this message. (See this poll on parent attitudes.)
Myth: Abstinence education leaves youth ignorant about contraception. It is true that former federal abstinence programs taught only about abstinence—but that doesn’t mean teens were ignorant about contraception. A single focus on abstinence made sense since the programs had only a few hours in the classroom. Moreover, teens were unlikely to get a clear abstinence message elsewhere in society, certainly not in the popular media. But most young people who were taught abstinence in school were also taught factual information about contraception elsewhere in the school curricula, for example, in biology or health class.
Myth: More condoms are the answer to teen and non-marital pregnancy. The left argues that lack of access and information about contraception is the main cause of teen and non-marital pregnancy. The answer to these problems is therefore more promotion of birth control. This is false. Contrary to conventional wisdom, lack of access to birth control is not a significant factor contributing to non-marital pregnancy among teens or non-teens.
Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin recently conducted a survey of lower income men and women who had experienced (or, in the case of men, caused) one or more non-marital pregnancies. The survey asked whether the individuals had ever in their lives been in a situation where they wanted to use birth control, but could not afford it or could not obtain it. All answered no.
Many laughed at the suggestion that their pregnancies had been caused by a lack of access to contraceptives, pointing out that contraceptives are abundantly available and aggressively promoted by schools and clinics in their communities. Of all the non-marital pregnancies reported in the study, not one was caused by lack of availability of contraceptives.
Teens Deserve Better. The current goal of the Obama administration is to kill abstinence education and to hype condoms in every school in the nation using programs that condone and encourage teen sex. This campaign is unacceptable to nearly all parents and will do nothing to solve real problems.