Saturday, April 14, 2007

Abstinence and Abstinence-Only Education

I hate this. I've been working all day on this stupid post, trying to say something about this study of abstinence-only education and how it doesn't produce abstinence. I start and then get stuck and then come back to it, and it's getting nowhere. There's a point I wanted to make but I think I'll can it for now.

This morning the local paper, the Washington Post, has the story on page A2:
A long-awaited national study has concluded that abstinence-only sex education, a cornerstone of the Bush administration's social agenda, does not keep teenagers from having sex. Neither does it increase or decrease the likelihood that if they do have sex, they will use a condom.

Authorized by Congress in 1997, the study followed 2000 children from elementary or middle school into high school. The children lived in four communities -- two urban, two rural. All of the children received the family life services available in their community, in addition, slightly more than half of them also received abstinence-only education.

By the end of the study, when the average child was just shy of 17, half of both groups had remained abstinent. The sexually active teenagers had sex the first time at about age 15. Less than a quarter of them, in both groups, reported using a condom every time they had sex. More than a third of both groups had two or more partners. Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only Programs

To really achieve abstinence, you need to realize that teenagers are autonomous, decision-making human beings. You can't consider them as authoritarian robots, responding obediently to sound-bite commands. You need to make a persuasive case and give them facts, give them reasons to abstain from sex. They should know what it is and how it works, what's good and what's bad about it, and what the consequences are. Really, one of the best examples of this, I thought, was the MCPS curriculum that was adopted in 2004 and then thrown out the next year after the lawsuit.

The problem is that it's too hard to fit all that on a six-second sound-bite. No politician will take on the golden glow of betterthanyou moralism with a concept as complicated as teaching teenagers to make responsible, well-informed decisions. For them it's better to say the word "abstinence" on-camera, bask in its aura, and get on to the next thing.

Well, that's great for getting votes, or getting donations for your organization. As this carefully-conducted study has shown, the problem is, abstinence-only education does not lead to abstinence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I hope you don't mind I've moved my reply up here. This recent abstinence study is appropriate to your questions, especially this finding: "By the end of the study, when the average child was just shy of 17, half of both groups had remained abstinent. " I've heard similar results from many sources that by the time they near high school graduation, about half of teens abstain and about half are sexually active. Sex education needs to be relevant for both groups.

You asked "There are two messages in the condom video:

First message is an ABSTINENCE message.

The second message is a CONTRACEPTIVE message.

These are two very different messages...would you agree?"

Of course the two messages are different, but IMHO they're both necessary and all students are going to benefit from hearing both of them. Everyone benefits from abstaining when they are not in a commited permanent relationship. And eventually, most all of the abstainers are going to become sexually active. Not all sexually active people intend to make babies. Knowing a medically safe and effective way to reduce the chances of pregnancy is a benefit to the 99% who do become sexually active.

Is one message stronger than the other?

I'd expect the message they get at home, house of worship, and school would be the strongest.

Is there a possibility that one message weakens the other (which ever message that happens to be)?

Sure Orin, anything's possible. Are you aware of any studies that demonstrate that one message interferes with the other? If not, this argument is pure conjecture.

April 16, 2007 8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Montgomery County Public Schools students receive the abstinence message for several years before they begin getting the contraceptive message. I think that makes it pretty clear what the priority message is.

April 17, 2007 9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the Bush administration capable of allowing fact-based, scientifically proven evidence rather than ideology or blind faith to shape its public policies? When it comes to what to do about air pollution, endangered species, embryonic stem cell research, the disposal of farm waste, forest management or lead poisoning, the answer is apparently not.

Nowhere is this administration’s reliance on ideology and faith and willful ignorance of science more dangerous and harmful than when it comes to sex. The president and his people continue to be willing to let your kids get dangerous diseases and to tolerate tens of thousands of preventable abortions by ignoring the fact that abstinence-only education does not work.

In a just released major study ordered by Congress, independent researchers found that in four typical abstinence-only programs sampled from around the country there was absolutely no difference between the sexual activity of kids in these program and kids who were not. In one of the abstinence-only programs studied, the students met and got the 'no sex' message for an hour every day! All of the abstinence-only programs in the study had at least 50 hours of class time. The kids were in the programs for one to three years starting at about age 11.

Chastity-only sex ed had no impact whatsoever on the kids' sexual behavior. The abstinence-only kids admitted to having sex at the same rate and starting at the same age as other students not in these classes. Whether they were in an abstinence-only class or not, by the time they reached 17 years of age, half the kids said they had had sex and half had not.

Telling kids every day "don’t have sex" — and nothing else — really does not work. American teenagers continue to get pregnant at a startling rate, leading to about 250,000 abortions every year — a higher abortion rate than in Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands or France, where sex ed consists of more than just "say no."

The rates of sexually transmitted disease among American kids continue to outpace those in other developed nations. There is plenty of scientific evidence from the United States and Europe that sex-ed programs that talk about contraception, condoms and abstinence do a better job at preventing unwanted pregnancies and controlling sexually transmitted diseases than abstinence-only programs.

This newly released research is just the latest in a long parade of studies that have failed to show any impact or efficacy of abstinence-only sex ed. So might we expect the Bush administration to look at the latest confirmatory data and admit that it is time to stop spending roughly $50 million a year of your tax money on abstinence-only programs that don’t work? Nah.

Bush administration official Harry Wilson, the commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families, offered this response: “You can’t expect one dose in middle school, or a small dose, to be protective all throughout the youth’s high school career.”

Actually, you cannot expect abstinence-only sex ed to be protective, effective or in any way useful at all. Ever. Period. Enough already. It's time to pull the plug on abstinence-only sex education. There are too many lives at stake to put up with a reproductive-health policy that is willing to kill and disable our kids out of an allegiance to a blind faith in something that does not work.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

April 17, 2007 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's Talk About Sex
Just saying no is not enough.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007; A22

BLIND FAITH in abstinence-only sex education was seriously shaken last week with the release of an authoritative study showing that, at best, such instruction is like chicken soup for a cold: It doesn't hurt, but it doesn't provide a cure, either. Students who participated in abstinence-only programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not. What makes this study noteworthy is that it didn't just gauge knowledge of sex. It looked at behavior. And the behavior of the 2,000 teens in two rural and two urban communities who were surveyed in 2005 and 2006 -- after they'd completed their programs -- would alarm any parent.

Students who received abstinence-only instruction were just as likely to have sex as those in a control group who did not receive such education. Among teens in both groups who had sex by the end of the study period, the average age of a first sexual encounter was 14.9 years. In both groups, a majority of those who were sexually active reported having two or more partners. And in both groups, only 23 percent said they always used condoms when having sex.

Maybe this report will be a bridge between the two extremes of the sex-education debate: the unrealistic no-sex-until-you're-married crowd and the untenable it's-okay-as-long-as-you-use-contraception gang. What's needed are sex education programs that deal with the real world -- programs that encourage teenagers to delay having sex until they are ready to handle the risk and responsibility and that encourage sexually active youths to use contraception. Such programs do exist. Becoming a Responsible Teen in Jackson, Miss., and Reach for Health in New York are two that have been cited by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy as being effective -- not perfect, but effective. The Bush administration should consider using some of the $176 million it spends on abstinence education to foster more programs like those instead of pooh-poohing the latest evidence that its efforts will not have the promised impact.

April 19, 2007 7:08 AM  

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