New Study Offers No Support for Abstinence-until-Marriage Programs

I must admit, when I first heard
about the recently-released Jemmott
on the success of an abstinence-only program for young adolescents, I
was tempted to pour over the published evaluation in hopes of finding a way to
discredit the results. Most of us are committed to the supporting evidence-based
programs that work, but we cringe at the notion that such a study could bring federally-funded abstinence-until-marriage curricula back into our schools. It
turns out other trusted allies have already reviewed the study, and luckily they
know about evaluating public health interventions. 

For instance,  Guttmacher Institute and Advocates for Youth (AFY)
quickly issued advisories describing what the study demonstrated:

"A certain type of abstinence-only program
can help some very young adolescents (average age 12) delay sexual initiation
for up to 24 months." (AFY)


"[This was] the first abstinence-only intervention to demonstrate [a]
positive impact in a randomized control trial…" (GI).

But they are quick to add some important warnings, morsels that supporters of
comprehensive sexuality education will eagerly consume and
abstinence-until-marriage proponents will refuse to sample.

Even though the study does suggest
that among those who participated (i.e. urban African-American pre-teens), an abstinence
message can work under certain circumstances, it does nothing to support the
type of sex education programs that were funded under the Bush administration.

You know the ones I mean, with behavior change based on moral coercion, misinformation
and tactics that are explicitly designed to scare. In fact, says Guttmacher, the
study "leaves intact the significant body of evidence" demonstrating that such
abstinence-until-marriage programs don’t work.

That hasn’t stopped
abstinence-until-marriage supporters from distorting the results of the study.
Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation managed to get major
media coverage for statements
like this
: "This
takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education." Rector again,
"Abstinence Education Effective; Comprehensive
Sex Ed a Big Flop."  

Leslee Unruh
at the Abstinence Clearinghouse: "It’s what we’ve known all along.
We have been tracking the numbers all along, and until this particular study
came out, we have really been ignored." Valerie Huber at the National
Abstinence Education Association was interviewed
by the Associated Press and indicated she hoped the study would help bring
federal funding back for abstinence education.

Huber is the most honest among
these conservative voices: she is upfront about wanting the results to affect
public policy. But making decisions based on a skewed interpretation of one
study is as irresponsible as ignoring scientific evidence that contradicts your
beliefs. It’s not science that is the problem, but how ideologues misrepresent
it for their own ends. I was nervous comprehensive sexuality education wouldn’t
look good in the media coverage of this study, and given this kind of spin from
the Right, I had good reason to be. But in the end I didn’t have enough of a
good reason to play dirty. Scientific research is one piece of building sound
public policy, and this study is part of that, but it’s just one piece. As the editorial
that accompanied the Jemmott study cautions:

No public policy should be based on the results
of one study, nor should policy makers selectively
use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets
preconceived ideologies.

We’re still solving the puzzle of
what works to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs; some day we’ll have a
solid picture, but as of now, there are still a lot of missing pieces.

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  • faultroy

    While I agree with your comments about evidence on abstinence until marriage programs, there is no evidence that any of the liberal birth control methods work as well. Let’s stick to reality: reality tells us that in the USA, there has been a steady decline in teen birth rates other than a blip (small increase) a few years ago with respect to teen pregnancies. This, therefore tells us that we have had a declining teen birthrate regardless of which administration has been in power. The birth rates have dropped whether we have championed faith-based pregnancy prevention programs or more liberalized Planned Parenthood/contraception education type programs. What these facts tell us is that regardless of which programs you implement, kids will do what they want–and adults will do what they want. So we as a society have a choice. Since we cannot substantiate any statistically and quantifiable measurable indicator to prefer one over the other, why criticize one over the other? Why not state the truth–neither works to the degree that we are pouring money into these programs. I think if we were all honest and dropped the bias and bigotry, we may be able to come to a happy medium on these issues. But to constantly harangue and criticize one method over the other just shows political ideology which really gets us nowwhere What we should be looking at is how to come together and implement programs that we can all agree on as opposed to denigrating one philosophy over the other. The loosers are the teens that will have to deal with the consequences of their actions. If we are really interested in the welfare and safety of our children, we must accept the fact that Money, Power and Greed has infected the objectivity of these dicussions.  Until we get the self interest and politics out of these social issues, we will never come up with viable and effective solutions. 

  • heather-corinna

    I think it’s also critically important to ask what anyone even means by "works."


    In other words, is the only aim to reduce rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections?  If so, the evidence we do have shows that comprehansive sex ed that includes accurate information on birth control and safer sex has done that before, though in the last decade of years (when those programs were few), only somewhat better than abstinence-only. And comprehensive sex ed has NEVER in our history gotten the kind of unding ab-only did, so  we have to be cautious comparing them in that way. We also have just seen an increase in teen pregnancy in the last year, and the decline in teen pregnancies first began with the advent of hormonal methods of contraception and comprehnansive sex education.


    But as a holistic sex educator, and one who has problems with BOTH kinds of curricula (albeit for different reasons), I personally feel that "works" is bigger than just those outcomes, and certainly bigger than delaying sex.  For me, "works" means help reduce unwanted health outcomes, but also helps people understand their bodies and how they function, teaches sexual communication skills, helps people with acceptance of their own sexuality and sexual identity, helps with decision-making around sex and reducing fear and shame so people can do that best, and nurtures sex lives people actually enjoy and feel good about, amongst other things.


    Mind, I think there are other reasons to be critical about abstinence-only curricula (the real kind, not the abstinence-plus type addressed here).  For instance, I’m not comfortable paying taxes so queer or trans youth can be shamed and excluded further, or so that sexism and sexist binary gender roles is taught to or enabled with young people as part-and-parcel of these programs. I’m also not comfortable paying taxes to have young people told lies under the guise of eduation, such as the lie that marriage will magically render them safe from illness and guarantee a happy sexual relationship, or the lie that condoms are an ineffective method of birth control or STI prevention, the kinds of intentional falsehoods present in many ab-only curricula.


    So, even if we saw identical outcomes with both types of curricula (and I have to say that as someone whose job is to fill in gaps from either, I do not feel we do even just from my view), if I had to pick just one type, comprehensive sex education would be a very easy choice. Not only do most of those curricula not inlude the kinds of personal and religious bias we find in ab-only, they also are not rife with medical inaccuracies. I’d say the same thing if we were talking about two kinds of history classes, where one teaches about the holocaust and the other claims it never happened.

  • crowepps

    If the purpose of these programs is entirely "stop teens from having sex" then I’d say neither one works well.  If the purpose of these programs is "provide reproductive information which people will use the rest of their lives" then the Abstinence Only programs are pretty useless – they focus mostly on delaying sex till marriage with the presumption that once marriage occurs, people can then be let in on the ‘secret’ of birth control.


    As I understand it, Comprehensive Sex Education includes information about Abstinence.  Abstinence Only is therefore incomplete, designed to withhold accurate knowledge from the students in the hopes that keeping them ignorant and telling them a bunch of lies will prevent them from engaging in sex.  It’s the ineffectiveness equivalent of showing "Reefer Madness" to discourage drug use.