Abstinence-only Education Works After Religion is Taken Out

February 2, 2010 in Health Policy, Medical Ethics by RangelMD

Abstinence-only sex-ed has traditionally been taught with a heavy religious and moralistic tone that tended to be very negative about contraceptive use and extramarital sex and stressed not only the avoidance of sexual relations until adulthood but until marriage as well. Prior studies comparing abstinence-only education had either found no difference in sexual activity with that of controls or a 3 month lag in initiating sexual activity in the late teen years.

Abstinence-only education advocates then came up with the brilliant idea of having teenagers sign a “virginity pledge” because if there is anything that gets a teenager’s attention it’s a legally non-binding contract used purely for symbolism. And this tended to make things worse since the virginity pledges turned out to be more like a  “no contraceptive use pledges“.

Now a different abstinence-only education program has been developed that focuses strictly on the benefits of abstinence and the risks of sexual activity prior to adulthood and a new study has found that this approach appears to be working when compared to the more traditional comprehensive sex-ed methods.

The classes didn’t preach saving sex until marriage or disparage condom use. Instead, they involved assignments to help students around the age of 12 see the drawbacks to sexual activity at their age. It included having them list the pros and cons themselves, and it found their “cons” far outnumbered the “pros.”

Two years later, about one-third of abstinence-only students said they’d had sex since the classes ended, versus nearly half — about 49% — of the control group. Sexual activity rates in the other two groups didn’t differ from the control group.

That’s an absolute decrease of 16 percentage points. Not bad. It seems that all you need to do is to tell teenagers the truth about the risks of something and they’ll get the message (at least 66% of the time). The abstinence-only advocates were right all along. It’s just that they were hindering their programs with a lot of religious and moralistic tangentials instead of simply focusing on the actual issue at hand.

What’s really suprising is that the abstinence-only group did far better than the traditional sex-ed group and the combined approach group (abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed), both of which were no better than the control group (general health).  This result may be in the way these sex-ed and general health programs were designed since comprehensive sex-ed has consistently been shown to be better than control groups in decreasing teen sexual activity.

The take home point (THP) is that, when something is not working . . eliminate the religious aspect.

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