Ab-Only May Help PreTeens Delay Sex

This article originally appeared at Advocates for Youth.

You may have seen a few newspaper articles with titles like “Abstinence-only programs might work, study says” in the past couple of days.  But are newspapers telling the whole story?  

The articles are based on a recent study by respected researchers John B. and Loretta S. Jemmott
and compare results for young people receiving three kinds of
programs:  an “abstinence-only” intervention, designed to help teens
wait until they are ready; a “combined intervention” which included
information about abstinence as well as contraception and condoms; and
a safer-sex-only intervention with no information about abstinence. 

study focused on young African American preteens in an urban area and
found that this new type of abstinence-only program can help some very
young adolescents (average age 12) delay sexual initiation for up to 24

is important to note that the study provides no data in support of the
failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs of the Bush era

The abstinence-only program in this study would not have been eligible
for federal funding during the Bush years because it did not fit the “8
point definition.” The program goal was to help early teens avoid sex
until they are ready—a totally different objective than the federally
funded abstinence programs already proven ineffective by the long-term
Mathematica study “which showed no impact on teen behavior.”

In the Jemmotts’ own
words: “It [the abstinence-only intervention] was not designed to meet
federal criteria for abstinence-only programs. For instance, the target
behavior was abstaining from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse until
a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the
consequences of sex. The intervention did not contain inaccurate
information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone.
The training and curriculum manual explicitly instructed the
facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view
that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected.”

Public Policy Implications: Five Points to Keep in Mind

1. Almost one-quarter of the young people in the study were already sexually active when the study began
This is the problem with the “only” component of any “only-type”
program.  An abstinence-only program provides no information about
condoms and contraception even though, in this case, approximately
one-quarter of the young people in the intervention already had had

2. Previous research on virginity pledges (Bearman and
Bruckner), demonstrated that initial delays in sexual activity wore off
in the later teen years.  Half of all teens are sexually active by the age of 17 and 70 percent of youth have had sexual intercourse by age 19.  These teens need information about both abstinence and contraception.

There is good research showing that many comprehensive sex education
programs — programs that provide information about both abstinence and
contraception/condoms — are effective at helping young people delay
sexual initiation as well as at using contraception/condoms
when they do become sexually active.  Thirty years of public health
studies have clearly determined that the provision of information about
condoms and contraception does not increase sexual activity among teens
or lower the age of sexual initiation.

4. Given limited
resources, shouldn’t we invest tax payer dollars in programs that can
deliver both delay in sexual initiation and increased contraceptive and
condom use by those who are sexually active? 

Further, shouldn’t we respect young people enough to provide them with
all of the information they need to take personal responsibility for
their sexual health?

The Obama administration is on the
right track in funding only science-based programs with evidence of
effectiveness.  The administration should also consider how scarce
resources are best invested and recognize the rights of all young
people to complete, accurate and honest information about their sexual

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  • sexstudent

    I have been reading a lot of information on this study and am very interested in the outcomes. But the most important point, I think, has not been answered. I’d like to know what the rates of STI’s and pregnancy were in all three groups. The past studies of abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education clearly showed that ab-only students have higher rates of pregnancy and STI’s than the comp. sex ed. groups, even though they may have waited 9-24 months longer to engage in sexual activities. And the comprehensive sex education students may have sex sooner but they have lower rates of pregnancy and STI’s. This study has not answered those questions. It’s only focus was on WHEN students were having sex. What I’d like to know…what is truly more important? The age at which students are having sex or the fact that they are protecting themselves?!

    "In America, each person is entitled to their own opinion, but each person is NOT entitled to their own facts" Marty Klein


  • sschoice

    Well, we’d expect that educational themes encouraging abstinence would be especially important for twelve-year-olds (!), who on so many counts lack the ability and resources that older teens might have to give informed consent in making the various decisions and engaging in the actions needed to have sex responsibly.


    Twelve-year-olds can’t drive and many are not able to use public transportation on a school day to go to a clinic for care, they don’t have an income beyond what they might make say mowing lawns or babysitting to be able to pay even part of the cost of birth control or medical care (much less paying for an abortion or a fraction of the cost of carrying a pregnancy to term), they’re not-yet-mature in so many ways of assuming adult responsibilities in addition to cognitive and developmental factors.


    But even for 12-year-olds it makes sense to incorporate comprehensive themes that include all of the issues, though perhaps in less detail, that for senior high schools students might be expected to study, like making them aware that safe, effective, and affordable options for birth control exists, that the risk of getting STDs can be significantly reduced and it’s an act of maturity and responsibility to use methods like condoms to help do so, and free and confidential screening for STDs is available and treatment is highly effective if STDs occur.


    Surely most 12-year-olds understand that most of what they’re learning in school in general is meant to be applied later on in their lives, and not in the immediate future.  Algebra I, for example, is usually not applied in the average 12-year-old’s life, except in the context of Algebra II.


    So, comprehensive sex education for 12-year-olds needn’t contradict a message that while it’s important for them to begin to learn about this now, they’re too young in many ways to have sex.


    After all, one would expect that the average 12-year-old, if asked if they were ready to have sex, would say "No."


    And, as some might add, "Duh."


    —- southern students for choice-athens