The Fracas Over the "Abstinence Education Works" Study

By Andrew Moseman | February 3, 2010 12:53 pm

sex edThere’s been lots of gloating, arguing, and tossing around of cliches like “game-changing” in the wake of a new study on abstinence education and its potential to reduce sexual activity in teens. But the study isn’t exactly what the political forces trumpeting its arrival would like you to believe.

The study appears in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. In its introduction, study leader John B. Jemmott III concludes that “Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.”

So what’s actually in the study? Between 2001 and 2004, Jemmott’s team studied 662 African-American middle schoolers in the northeastern United States, who were each paid $20 a session to attend sex-education classes. The kids were randomly assigned to one of several different programs: One program emphasized only abstinence, one both safe sex and abstinence, one just safe sex, and the last was a control group that simply taught healthy living—eating well, exercise, and the like.

According to the study, which relied on self-reported surveys, about half of the kids in the safe-sex only class began having sex over the next two years, compared to a third for the students in the abstinence-focused program and 42 percent of those in the combination program. But while abstinence-only backers jumped for joy at the results, the journal ran an accompanying editorial cautioning that public policy should not be based on the results of a single study and that policy makers should not “selectively use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets preconceived ideologies” [The New York Times]. That speaks directly to the posture of Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, who said the study “just verifies what we’ve known intuitively all along.”

Jemmott’s study will now rightfully enter the debate as the first to show that abstinence programs could work in some situations. But there are other reasons to question how much his results mean for the country at large (other than the previous studies casting doubt on the effectiveness of abstinence-only education). He says the team chose to study only African-American students, and at such a young age (about 12 on average), because “African-Americans tend to have a higher rate of early sexual initiation than others,” and starting young could allow for intervention. Researchers will have to duplicate the study with other demographic groups and time spans to sort out this question further.

In addition, the abstinence-only program that Jemmott’s team devised wasn’t exactly the “wait until you’re married” approach that many social conservatives would like to see taught to kids. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms [The Washington Post].

Among those critical of the Jemmott study was Heather Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute, which released data showing that after a decade-long decline, America’s teen-pregnancy rate rose 3 percent in 2006. Ms. Boonstra is among those who believe some of that uptick may be due to the reliance on abstinence-only programs [Christian Science Monitor]. Once again, though, correlation doesn’t imply causation. So although the trend reversal coincides in time with President Bush’s emphasis on funding abstinence programs, we can’t say for sure that’s the main cause.

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine
  • chris w.

    I’d be more interested to see what the pregnancy rates are. I’m not as worried about kids possibly having sex as I am about them doing so, if they must, safely and responsibly. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see that, while there may be fewer of them having sex, the abstinence-only group had a higher rate of pregnancy among those that did.

  • Zack B.

    Nice to see that social scientists are conducting thought-provoking and useful studies using the scientific method. With repeated studies and similar studies across different demographics, it will be interesting to see where this leads.

  • Brian V

    Self-reporting seems to me to be ripe for corrupt findings. I have no doubt that the self-reporting adolescents are easily and heavily influenced by several factors to respond in the manner that is perceived as the desired one.

  • YouRang

    Great comments Chris and Brian (I came here to say just those thoughts).
    In addition, when I listened to the details of what they were teaching, it wasn’t obvious that the message wasn’t consistent with safe sex and safe with regard to pregnancy sex. So I particularly second Chris’s comment: What was the pregnancy rate among the various safe sex programs 3 years afterward?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/neurotopia Scicurious

    I would be interested to see the pregnancy rate, and I would ALSO be interested to see how the abstinence only group felt about having sex vs the safe sex group. Would abstinence only kids, for example, feel worse about REPORTING that they had had sex?

  • Vlad J

    “wait until your married” ?
    You mean “you’re”. Please wake up, editors.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    Thanks for the typo catch, Vlad. Fixed.

  • Tulips for my organ

    Nothing got me more tail and drugs than attending Christian study when I was in High School. The case should’ve been closed back when Nancy Reagen’s D.A.R.E. fiasco happened, leading to previously unheard of rates of addiction, disease and pregnancy amongst teens.

    You can not simply tell kids not to have sex when they know darned well it feels good, and all media sells them everything they consume with either sexual inuendo (shape of a coke bottle), or blatent sexual representation (axe body spray).

    Most people only look for an opinion that reinforces their own. Open dialogues hold the key to creating informed opinions. If we lose our sexual hangups, and openly communicate with our children, many modern problems can be adressed before they become the drug addicted breeders that preceeded them.

  • Rain

    Interesting that pregnancy seems to be regarded as the most regrettable side effect of unsafe sex. Still. Especially as STDs are running rampant. How old fashioned. The fear of unwanted pregnancy is a large part of what fuels abstinence only education.

    Children should be taught about safe sex, and about respecting their physical, as well as their emotional selves. But they also need to be taught that sex is not simple. It is not a black and white thing that we either decide or decide not to do. Lack of knowledge, versus lack of education, is the real problem.

  • http://capoeirameister.de/ Scot Eavenson

    The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as a lot as this one. I mean, I know it was my option to learn, however I really thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you could possibly repair should you werent too busy on the lookout for attention.

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