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The ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education June 21, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Science.
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Although this is by no means a new issue, I thought it would be useful to have the facts of the issue in one post, at least for easy access to “ammunition” against those who push for puritanical and fruitless abstinence-only sex education.

 

Studies have indicated that abstinence-only sex education programs are ineffective

 According to a study done by the American Psychological Association (APA), it was found that comprehensive sex education is more effective at stopping the spread of HIV infection. From the article:

 Based on over 15 years of research, the evidence shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs for youth that encourage abstinence, promote appropriate condom use, and teach sexual communication skills reduce HIV-risk behavior and also delay the onset of sexual intercourse.

 In contrast, scientifically sound studies of abstinence only programs show an unintended consequence of unprotected sex at first intercourse and during later sexual activity. In this way, abstinence only programs increase the risk of these adolescents for pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV/AIDS

 The full article is available here.

 

According to a research team from Oxford University which reviewed 13 US trials involving over 15,000 people aged 10 to 21, it was found that none of the abstinence-only programs had an impact on the age at which individuals lost their virginity, whether they had unprotected sex, the number of sexual partners, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases or the number of pregnancies.Their research, which was published in the British Medical Journal, showed that in comparison, programs which promote the use of condoms greatly reduce the risk of HIV.

 

A study by the nonpartisan Mathematica Policy Research also showed that abstinence-only sex education does not keep teenagers from having sex. The study used a rigorous, scientifically based approach involving two statistically equivalent groups – a program group which received abstinence-only education, and a control group which did not.

 “There’s not a lot of good news here for people who pin their hopes on abstinence-only education,” said Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a privately funded organization that monitors sex education programs. “This is the first study with a solid, experimental design, the first with adequate numbers and long-term follow-up, the first to measure behavior and not just intent. On every measure, the effectiveness of the programs was flat.”

 Brown said Mathematica’s results underscore what other, smaller studies have shown: “The most effective programs are those that say abstinence is the best choice but birth control and protection are also worth knowing about.”

An official at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States agreed.

“Comprehensive education means teaching about abstinence and a myriad of other topics,” said spokeswoman Martha Kempner. Among them, she said: “contraception, critical thinking, one’s own values and the values of your family and your religious community.

“Abstinence-only was an experiment and it failed.”

 

Virginity Pledges

 In addition to abstinence-only sex education, we are also seeing more teens taking so called “virginity pledges, where they (or sometimes even creepier still-their parents) pledge to stay virgins until they get married. However, it was found that not only are teenagers who make such promises just as likely to have sex, but they are also less likely to use protection.

 By 2001, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises, and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

“It seems that pledgers aren’t really internalizing the pledge,” Rosenbaum said. “Participating in a program doesn’t appear to be motivating them to change their behavior. It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program.”

From these findings it is highly possible that these teens were pressured to take such pledges, either by their peers, parents or religious community. Their purity rings aren’t a symbol of their dedication to celibacy, they are a symbol to prove how conservative and religious they are. As a result, not only are the pledges ineffective, they are also counterproductive in that the teens end up engaging in unsafe sex.

 

Expecting all teens to abstain is unrealistic

 In addition to the facts that almost all humans have a natural desire for sex, and that we are hit with an especially potent cocktail of hormones during our teenage years which make us all the more horny (tsk tsk), the brains of teenagers also make them more prone to impulsive behavior. Brain scans have shown that the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that control impulses, don’t mature until age 25, and their connections to other parts of the brain continue to improve to at least that age. This results in teens making bad judgments. (Incidentally, this is also the reason why teens are usually not tried as adults in the court of law.) Given this, it is simply unavoidable that some teens will eventually have sex, regardless of how much the abstinence message is drilled into them, and even regardless of their own plans to abstain.

 

So the question is, do we just want to let these teens to fall through the cracks, and punish them (by means of pregnancy and STDs) for their inability to control themselves, nevermind the fact that unwanted pregnancies, teen marriages and STDs all have negative impacts on society? It seems like the conservative right wants to do just that. By continuing to push for abstinence-only education in schools despite overwhelming proof that it is ineffective, it is clear that the conservatives care more about their own consciences than about the real consequences faced by individuals and eventually faced by society. Our society can do with less of such selfishness and self-righteousness, and more respect for our youths.

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