Whut? Teenagers like s-e-x? ZOMG!

By Phil Plait | December 29, 2008 3:00 pm

[Update: When I orignially wrote this, I said this was about abstinence-only education, when it’s really about virginity pledges. The two are closely related, but I shouldn’t have made that mistake. I have corrected it below.]

Sigh. Yet Another Study shows abstinence-only sex education virginity pledges, like abstinence-only education, doesn’t work. Teenagers are just as likely to have sex after being told not to, and far worse, when they do have sex they don’t use protection. That increases the rate of STDs and pregnancies.

If only we had known that before.

According to that article,

“Taking a [virginity] pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” said Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. “But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking.”

So let’s get this straight. If you teach a kid only that sex is bad and make them promise they shouldn’t do it until they are married, they are still just as likely to go ahead and Do It. That is the opposite of what you want, obviously, and you’re making it worse because unwanted pregnancies are likely to go up because of this. So what do you do?

My guess is, stick your fingers in your ears and yell "LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!" There has been some good news lately with states rejecting abstinence-only education funds, but this kind of anti-reality garbage is unlikely to go down without a fight. I suspect its influence is waning; with the far-right losing its grip (except through obstructionism, and expect to see a lot of that coming) maintaining such nonsense will be harder. However, lots of Democrats like abstinence-only puffery as well, so it won’t go away any time soon.

The solution is obvious. Teach kids in school all about health and their bodies. Then, if you want them to behave a certain way, talk to them at home. That way, they have actual, y’know, knowledge, and you yourself as their parent can guide them in what you see as a moral direction.

We have reached a watershed here, I think. If you don’t like them learning about their bodies in school, that’s too frakking bad. Too many studies show that abstinence-only voodoo and its corollaries do not work, and it’s time people face up to that.

It’s not a matter or morality. It’s a matter of fact.


Comments (78)

  1. Henrik

    I had my first sex-ed talk in school in the fifth grade

  2. Out-of-wedlock teenage childbirth is a test of faith re the preggers unwed high school Sarah Palin daughter whose presumed mother-in-law is allegedly up for crystal meth synthesis and peddilng charges. Birthing a Mongoloid idiot (also Sarah Palin) is a test of faith. In the whole of human history across the entire planet not one deity has volunteered Novocain. Test of faith!


    Can God make a collection plate so vast that even He cannot fill it? Sure! ALL OF THEM. An advocate makes virtue of failure. The worse the cure the better the treatment – and the more that is required. VP Al Gore, Jr.’s night basketball, Head Start, Social Security, Medicare, NINJA mortgages… tests of faith! Wouldn’t you rather have engineering solutions?

  3. Henrik

    d’oh! stupid touchpad and writing on a laptop… meant to say that this is perfectly normal in Sweden, so for me it’s a mystery why it’s so hush-hush in America.

  4. The Song of Solomon gets ’em totally hot to trot.

  5. PG

    We had sex-ed talks in 5th or 6th grade in Massachusetts in the early 1980’s.

  6. David D

    Does any type of sex-ed actually reduce significantly the rates of teen pregnancies?

  7. My first sex-ed chat was in the fourth grade. And, as Phil recommends, my parents chatted with me afterward.

    I turned out alright… right? Only 11 unfathered children and equally as many STDs.

    NOTE FOR THE DENSE: The above line is a joke, and I entirely support Phil’s position.

  8. David D

    And really–did anyone here actually get useful info from a sex ed class?

  9. They’re still on about that, eh? I was a youth leader in the 90’s and I was told by a youth-studies professor at a Seminary that the sexually-active rates for both churched teens and secular teens were exactly the same. It’s just people keep running surveys hoping to get results they like.

    I like abstinence – personally I’ve only been with my wife – but I wouldn’t force that on anyone else, that was my personal decision. These folks keep giving Abstinence a bad frickin’ name. Hand out the condoms, educate on sex!

  10. John Keller

    I had my first sex ed class in 5th grade too, which was the spring of 1972. My son had his first sex ed class in 5th grade too, which was in the spring of 2006. Thanks to his mother, he knew what was being taught and found the class boring.

  11. John Keller

    David D,

    I got a lot of useful information from my sex ed classes, especially the three-week class in 7th grade. It was very technical. Several days were spent on birth control. My only complaint was that the teacher never mentioned abstinence as the only way to prevent STDs and pregancy. Fortunately my mother did.

  12. drksky

    @Henrik: For some reason, as seemingly free-wheeling as the US is, a lot of folks here are surprisingly uptight when it comes to sex and the human body. My guess is it’s mostly because of religious-types trying to force their beliefs on anyone within earshot. If it’s immoral in their book, then by george, it should be in everyone else’s, too.

    As evidenced by this “Family Guy” excerpt:

    Peter: “We’re looking for a potty training book for our son.”
    Bookseller: “Well, we have ‘Everybody Poops’, that’s pretty much the standard.”
    Peter: “Oh, well, we’re catholic.”
    Bookseller: “Oh! Then you want, ‘That’s Concentrated Evil Coming Out of Your Backside, and You’re Going Straight to Hell.”


  13. the teacher never mentioned abstinence as the only way to prevent STDs and pregancy

    Abstinence is not the “only way to prevent STDs and pregnancy”, though obviously it’s a terrifically reliable one. I can’t imagine why your teacher would not have at least mentioned it. Perhaps it seemed too “duh”, but that never seemed to stop my teachers, and modern programs require it to be emphasized.

  14. Ya know, I grew up in a fairly Republican city, and our first sex-ed came up in second grade. (It wasn’t really about human sexuality specifically at that stage, but they were starting the education process.) Now, granted, Rochester, MN is the home of the Mayo clinic, so perhaps there’s a tendency towards being up front with medical issues. (And, granted, Minnesota conservatism tends to be somewhat different than the nation as a whole.) All the way through, we were taught the biology, sociology, and health issues with sex. We were given fairly detailed information about birth control methods in at least two grades (8th and 10th). And all along we were told that the only 100% safe option is abstinence. They treated us like thinking human beings, but they also guided us as best they could. Honestly, I think my school district did absolutely the right thing and it fairly appals me that other schools don’t.

    Also, I seem to recall reading a report of a study that found that not only does abstinence only lower use of birth control (condoms in particular) and not teen-sex rates, more inclusive sex ed actually lowers the teen-sex rate a bit. I’m sure I read the report in a reputable news source (BBC, perhaps?), so I believe that the study really happened. I wish I could find it now!

  15. David D

    Wait–reputable news source and BBC don’t really go together . . .

  16. John Keller

    Naked Bunny,

    Maybe I should have said that abstinence is the only 100% effective method to prevent pregnancy and STDs.

    BTW, I would have to say that I grew in a very religously conservative part of Michigan (lots of Catholics). I think that with our sex ed classes coupled with parental involvment was one of the reasons we only had two teens in my graduating of 440 have kids.

  17. justcorbly

    I’ve never understood how abstinence-only can be pumped up to be an actual item on a curriculum. The notion that sex often produces pregnancy is not obscure. What else do they talk about?

  18. Parental involvement makes a heckuva difference in all aspects of education. Sex ed is no exception.

  19. JoeSmithCA

    ..and remember everyone, spade or newter your kids..err..pets, yes, I meant pets!

    Also absintence is the greatest way to prevent your ever needing to talk to your kids about sex and STDs. 😉

  20. Hey, I knew why abstinence was a good way to prevent STD’s and pregnancy. And it was because I had a real-live comprehensive sex-ed class in high school.

    Being an awkward, nerdy kid who was ignored or laughed at when it came to girls meant that I didn’t need to take no stinkin’ pledge in order to abstain.

  21. Dave Wiley

    That “study” does not seem like very good science to me. More like cherry picking the data. Somehow the researcher managed to exclude the kids “unlikely to ever take the pledge” from the results. I’d like to hear how this was done. As skeptics we have to apply this skepticism as readily to results we agree with as ones we don’t.

  22. We assume that the people who preach abstinence-only sex education (AOSE) have as their highest priority the reduction of (unwanted) teenage pregnancies. They don’t. They want their children to not have sex. Giving proper (as we understand it) sex education, with condoms, pills, and the whole menagerie, implicitly signals that it is OK to have sex, as long as you make it safe sex.

    No amount of studies like the one quoted in the post will make the AOSE proponents change their mind: to them a teenage pregnancy is not nearly as bad as for liberals, who understand that any professional career of the mother is now cut short. (Probably many AOSE proponents do not want their daughters to have careers outside of the home anyway.)

  23. Shannon

    “These folks keep giving Abstinence a bad frickin’ name. Hand out the condoms, educate on sex!”

    The catch with ‘abstinent only’ education is that the instructors are NOT ALLOWED to talk about birth control or condoms (remember: they are saying “NO SEX”, not “NO SEX… but if you do, be safe.”) I live in an abstinent county, and just recently graduated high school, so I know first hand what they teach. When someone asked about condoms or how to prevent STD’s, the teacher would let us know that she was upset, not that we asked, but upset that she was not allowed to give us the information because her job would be at risk.

    We were not told what condoms were or where we could get birth control. We were not told how to prevent STDs. We have a whole building dedicated to the pregnant young ladies and the women who already have kids. Because they were not informed.

    Teens are not going to be abstinent because you say so (in fact, because you say don’t, they do because it’s rebellious and cool, like smoking and drinking). So teach them what they need to know. The ones that want to be abstinent won’t go have sex just because you tell them how to do it safely. There is no reason NOT to teach ‘Safe’ sex ed.

  24. Retrogarde

    “Don’t teach music so kids can’t enjoy songs!”

    Pathetic Victorian ideas mixed up with new age christianity. Ignorance, ignorance and blunt stupidity. Dark ‘new’ age Freaks.

  25. David D


    You are right–AOSE parents don’t want their kids to have sex. Their idea is to teach kids to respect their bodies and each other’s bodies. Whether or not that is realistic is another story.

    I don’t think it is wrong at all to teach abstinence in sex ed; perhaps it can promote positive ideas about sexuality in teens. I don’t believe in abstinence-only sex ed, but I’m not sure that there are any definitive studies that show sex ed in general has any proven effects on teen pregnancy or STD’s (I think there are studies that show results going both ways).

  26. Lisa

    My mom started the “talk” with me when I was in early elementary. She used age appropriate books to help. I pretty much got it at that point. I had my first school sex ed in 5th grade, and this was in GA in the mid 80’s. I was always very interested in the science part of it and understood the risks even at that early age. The UU congregation we attend has a class for all groups concerning sex and relationships. I plan to enroll my 6 and 4 yr. olds in them.

  27. Ramel

    Sex-ed was a truely horrific experience for me. Mostly seemed to consist of pictures of diseased dicks to show the horrors that await people who have sex. I got better info from my parents, a little awkward, but at least they weren’t complete ‘tards. It’s not just american sex-ed thats screwed, I went to a christian school in wales.

  28. Michael

    The fastest way to get something done is to forbid a teenager to do it.

  29. Dave Hall

    Abstinence-only sex education is not about education. It is not about ‘respect’ for each others’ bodies. It is about control.

    By control–I mean parents, teachers, church elders,and politicians trying to control the behavior of those supposedly under their care.

    Maybe some honestly believe they are doing right by their kids, but it still boils down to telling their kids what to do and how to do it.

  30. OtherRob

    I’ve always found it interesting that Christians say that abstinence is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy when the Virgin Birth in the cornerstone of their faith. 😉

  31. kuhnigget

    “You are right–AOSE parents don’t want their kids to have sex. Their idea is to teach kids to respect their bodies and each other’s bodies. Whether or not that is realistic is another story.
    I don’t think it is wrong at all to teach abstinence in sex ed; perhaps it can promote positive ideas about sexuality in teens”

    David D, are you saying having a healthy attitude toward sex (including having it, responsibly) is not respectful of one’s body?

    Just asking.

  32. Spooky

    down here in oz I had me first sex-ed classes when I was in grade 5. it wasn’t compulsory, was after school, and repeated/expanded upon over a couple of years.

    but the buggers never taught us the proper care of a clitoris! I had to fumble through that with my girlfriend myself.

  33. David D

    @Dave Hall–

    . . . telling their kids what to do and how to do it.

    That is what parenting is about, up to a point.


    I am saying no such thing. There are certainly teens who are responsible in many aspects of their lives. It is an age, though, of “magical” thinking, of indestructibility, and many teens do not behave responsibly in this area (obviously, if they did, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion). Just as I would probably not encourage a teen to start drinking or use drugs, I would probably not encourage a teen to have sex.

  34. IVAN3MAN

    Sex Talk in Class:

  35. Jessie

    Um… I should probably throw my two cents in, because I’m one of the guinea pigs in the abstinence-only experiment (I’m currently 19).
    Not only is the abstinence-only a trainwreck, for me it was just part of a health class in middle school (and the bleach thing is not that surprising, this is Florida we’re talking about). It was tab-a in slot-b and only after marriage. The fact that not everybody is straight never factored in, God forbid we actually learn how to prevent STDs if we’re not straight.

    @ David-
    Teaches us to respect our bodies and each other’s bodies? Really? All I got from sex-ed was that for straight people these drives were to be ignored and denied and were sinful. And homosexuals? Don’t even talk about it because as sinful and ugly and filthy as the straight people’s impulses were, yours are exponentially worse, and literally unmentionable. And this is somewhat more insidious than simply null curriculum.

    Nice observation. 😀

    Oh, and off-topic, but did anybody notice this: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/services/newspaper/printedition/saturday/orl-galileo2708dec27,0,4060010.story

  36. kuhnigget

    @ David.

    Cool. That’s what I was hoping you meant.

  37. Eric

    You’re assuming that the goal of people who promote abstinence-only sex education is to reduce the number of pregnancies and STDs.

    I think you assume that because that’s a rational goal, but many people don’t approach this rationally.

    Abstinence-only education let’s them assume that their kids aren’t going to have sex, and if one of them does get pregnant, well, that’s a gift from god and the kids get pregnant. Ref. Sarah Palin’s daughter as an example. We might think of teenage pregnancy and marriage as a bad thing, but if you think that being a mother and wife is the only thing a daughter should aspire to, then it’s the right thing happening just a few years earlier.

    And we all know that STDs are part of the wages of sin – anybody who gets them deserves them.

    I think unless you understand that their viewpoint of what is desirable is drastically different than yours, it’s hard to make sense of what they advocate.

  38. Chayanov

    I’m sure comprehensive sex ed would be even more effective if teens had better access to contraceptives. Fundy pharmacists who refuse to prescribe birth control kind of undermine the whole process of preventing pregnancies.

  39. Chayanov

    And of course by “prescribe” I mean fill prescriptions. D’oh!

  40. Skeptic Tim

    “…with the far-right losing its grip…”
    “losing?” Dho! That pretty well sums up everything!

  41. David D


    Sarah Palin’s daughter was not enrolled in an abstinence-only sex ed program, so she is probably not a good example for you.

    . . . if you think that being a mother and wife is the only thing a daughter should aspire to, then it’s the right thing happening just a few years earlier.

    And we all know that STDs are part of the wages of sin – anybody who gets them deserves them. . .

    You make some sweeping generalizations there that are not necessarily true for many AOSE parents. I am sure some of them hold “fundamentalist” viewpoints, but not all. The idea of mother and wife as the only thing a daughter should aspire to is not as common as you seem to think.

  42. Robbie

    If the problem is the failure of abstinence only education in public schools let’s just get rid of public schools. They suck anyway.

  43. Tim G

    What exactly should kids in their early teens should be taught about beginning sexual activity? I conjecture that starting too early is significantly more likely to lead to severe regrets or consequences. Perhaps young teens should be encouraged to wait a couple of years as they are still impulsive and vulnerable to coercion by peers they desperately want to fit in with. When they are upperclassmen and high school is half over, they begin to think more about long term consequences.

  44. Logan

    I believe sex is nothing to be ashamed of. Education on the subject should start as early as the kids ask or the parents think it is the right time. There is nothing awkward about it, we all do it. This has probably been said before… but it is “IT”.

    Trying to deny basic human nature is silly. Making a big to-do over it insults that nature.

  45. Starviking

    @David D

    “Wait–reputable news source and BBC don’t really go together . . .”

    Compared to what?

  46. Earlier today, Bristol Palin gave birth to the Enterpises’ first engineer, Tripp….

  47. quasidog

    By saying that it doesn’t work, and then talking to a kid that it actually did work on,which by sheer chance I am sure exist, does that invalidate the comment that says that it doesn’t work?

    I am sure in most cases it doesn’t. But I doubt that is true in 100% of cases.

  48. Scott Hedrick

    *Abstinence* works. Abstinence-only sex education does not.

    For those who think that properly practiced abstinence does not work, you’re free to name and provide verification for anyone who did not engage in sexual activity who got pregnant.

    As far as abstinence goes, the problem is *not* abstinence, it’s the failure of the person to practice it. Put the blame where it lies. Claiming that abstinence fails is like blaming a diet for failing while stuffing a candy bar in your mouth. It’s much easier to blame the diet than to accept personal responsibility.

  49. Heidi Andereson

    I don’t understand why it is automatically assumed to be a bad thing when teens have sex. I had great, safe, SOBER, sex in high school with no bad consequences at all. In fact, I was ready BEFORE I lost my virginity. As a matter of fact, I have become the person that my friends get want to talk to their children about sex.

    As a woman, I was taught that my sexuality belonged to ME, and that it was my choice when to be sexually active. There was no timetable put on it, simply an assurance that I would know when I was ready. Also, birth control and condoms were discussed as well.

    My mom was shocked, but pleased, when I walked up to her at 17 and said “I’m going to lose my viriginity to Lee, I’m already on the pill, and I feel it is important for me to spend the night with him. I’m not asking your permission, just letting you know.” She never did give me permission, but was fully aware of what happened during a summer trip.

    Teens are not children, and when you teach them that their bodies belong to anyone other than themselves, it seems like you are setting them up for bad sex and possibly assault. As a teen girl, I would never have had drunken sex or been part of the “bj” party scene (although I think this is an urban myth) because I would have wondered what was in it for me? Orgasms were my right as a sexual creature, and sex that did not involve them was not worth being involved in.

    I have always wanted to create a sex ed curriculum for women where the female orgasm was the centerpiece, not ejaculation!

  50. Doc

    @John Keller

    Remember: according to the Bible, abstinence is not 100% effective at preventing pregnancy.

  51. Harold McTestes

    Sexually speaking, the wildest, most uninhibited, craziest gals that my friends and I slept with growing up were Catholic school girls. It’s obvious now that it was simply a lack of sex education and knowledge on their end due to abstinence only education. A lot of them were totally convinced that anal/oral sex was okay just because the Bible didn’t condemn it. Sad, but true.

  52. Jon

    Not to say I agree with the abstinence-only position here (I don’t) or that I think that they necessarily have a point, but I would like to point out that this study isn’t exactly what we would call “good science.”

    This study shows that kids are just as likely to have sex, regardless of whether or not they went through abstinence-only sex-ed. This is not a relevant observation unless you believe that there is no treatment effect. In other words, kids in districts that teach abstinence-only sex-ed may be choosing this method because it is effective for their children, and perhaps these children are more predisposed toward early sexual activity than those whose parents choose other sex-ed instruction.

    The policy-relevant question would be, “do kids who have abstinence-only education have less sex than they would under a counterfactual policy in which they receive the other kind of sex-ed?” The only way to answer this question reliably would be to perform or identify some random selection of who gets what kind of sex-ed, and then follow those two cohorts of students. This is not the kind of problem that can be overcome with a multivariate regression using a number of other covariates, either. I admittedly haven’t read the study myself, but the reporting does not seem to suggest that this is the approach that the author took.

  53. How true. Ignorance can never be the solution. Education is the only solution. The more you try to hide or prevent, the inquisitive minds of children will be even more determined to experiment and try it out.

    I think it’s best to just educate children about everything as soon as they attain puberty without making a huge hue and cry about it.

  54. Gary Ansorge

    Tim G:

    Starting too early? Let’s see,,,I started my offspring on sex education when they were too young to be embarrassed about their questions(like, when they were born). They’re adults, have active sex lives and only one grand child produced(thru an egg donation).
    My Bro, who was separated from his wife and daughters while they were very young, was unable to affect their sex education. Their mother was religiously very conservative. All three daughters were pregnant before they graduated from high school. He now has six grand children,,,

    So, I guess the consequence of TOO early sex education is a serious reduction in the number of grand children produced, no illegitimate offspring and no STDs,,,

    Yeah, that’s a real disadvantage to early and comprehensive sex education: happy, sexy, healthy offspring with a low DNA transfer rate.


    GAry 7

  55. wb

    I practiced abstinence before marriage, I am all for it. But given that I come from a strict faith community where, nonetheless, the pre-marriage pregnancy rate was extremely high (over 50%), I’d say I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence that abstinence-only education is ineffective.

    I am also pro-life. Abortion should be safe, legal and RARE. Preventing conception and/or implantation is the only way to prevent abortion, so I support the most effective means of preventing conception or implantation.

    It is a shame that our litigious society keeps getting effective birth control taken off the shelves. Norplant, various IUDs, etc. have been removed as options. We need more options, not fewer.

    I was always a curious child, so I was well-educated as to sex through reading library books, etc. It didn’t sway my abstinence decision, it just made me look forward to marriage even more. I did not get married young, but I waited for the right guy, and it’s been a very good marriage for 24 years now.

  56. John Phillips, FCD

    David D, well to use some European countries as an example, those that offer the most comprehensive sex education, e.g. The Netherlands and Scandinavia, have the lowest teen birth rates, lowest STD rates as well as teens having sex on average later than any other Western country. Sorry, don’t have any links available at the moment but off the top of my head, the US has about ten times the rate of teen pregnancies that the Dutch do, about eight times that of the Nordic countries and 2.5 times that of even the UK. Admittedly, the Dutch and Nordic countries also tend to have, at least in my opinion, a healthier attitude toward sex in general, which must be an additional factor.

  57. Tim G


    You misinterpreted my post. I wasn’t suggesting postponing sex education.

  58. David D

    @John Phillips–

    Interesting statistics, to be sure, but it is difficult to compare US society with that of The Netherlands or Scandinavia, which are much more homogenous and less multicultural than that found in America.

  59. Old Geezer

    Here’s a thought. Whenever an IDer wants to teach their nonsense along side evolution as simply “teaching the controversy” agree on the condition that all abstinence-only courses must include comprehensive discussion of contraception and STD prevention as “teaching the controversy”.

  60. @David D: The Netherlands has a real and active bible belt (YEC, antivaxxers, abstinence-only, you name it). In terms of opinions, the Dutch are just as diverse as Americans. In terms of multiculturalism, the Netherlands have about five times as many muslims as the US (in relative numbers), and there are certainly more atheists and openly gay people than in the US (again, percentage wise). So I don’t buy your argument.

  61. David D


    Pop. of Netherlands-about 16 million
    Pop. of USA-about 300 million

    The Muslim population in The Netherlands is a relatively recent phenomenon.

    And I was not talking about opinions at all. I am simply referring to the much more numerous groups and cultures who have been part of American life. It is a much broader and diverse group than a lot of other societies. It is just a fact, and not meant to cast your society in a bad light. It does make it difficult to draw broad comparisons between our two societies, given their very different makeup and histories.

  62. David, absolute numbers are meaningless in this context, it is the relative size that matters. And whether you call it opinions or culture, the diversity in world views, if you like, is pretty much comparable. As is the political spectrum. I am not denying that there aren’t any differences between the two countries, but the diversity argument against adopting Dutch or Scandinavian policies does not convince me.

  63. David D


    You seem to be putting words in my mouth. I am not arguing against adopting Dutch or Scandinavian policies; where did you get that from?

    Perhaps the “diversity in world views” (what ever that means) is comparable; I certainly don’t believe that these societies are monolithic in any way.

    I am simply saying that comparing different aspects of US society (like teen pregnancy, or healthcare issues, or the causes of poverty) with those of other countries/societies (like the Dutch or Scandinavia) is problematic because of the vast differences in their cultural histories. It is simply a fact, for example, that race has largely NOT played a factor in, for example, Norwegian society. Nor is there a history of a large and diverse immigrant population assimilating into Swedish society, as there was in the US in the early 20th century. These are social issues that many European countries have not experienced, and these (and other issues) greatly color American culture. This is not a judgement of “better” or “worse,” it is simply a fact.

  64. James P

    Whut? A whole b-l-o-g thread about a scientific article that none of the posters even bothered to read (include the honorable – and I’m sure intelligent – Phil Plait)? ZOMG!

    I’m a big fan of comprehensive sex education, but Pu-leaze! It is obvious no one actually read the article (even though anyone can – it is open access in the journal “Pediatrics”). This study says (and I quote), “…the pledge is an intermediate variable to an unobserved treatment variable: abstinence education program participation, unmeasured in the Add Health survey.” (page e114). For the less enlightened (or those lacking critical thought – yes, I’m talking to you), the author is saying that she used results from a government health survey THAT DID NOT MEASURE ABSTINENCE EDUCATION. She clearly says that she views a “pledge” to be an inherent part of an abstinence program, therefore it must be a proxy measure. This is faulty logic. Given that 82% denied ever taking a pledge 1 YEAR LATER, it makes me wonder how “formal” the pledge really was (and this was before they got freaky, so they probably weren’t denying it out of guilt).

    Some more tidbits:
    – Only kids 15 or older were surveyed. The “pledge” had to take place between 15 and 16 for them to be included in the study. Maybe leaving a few out, don’t you think? Anyway, of course ya’ have to catch them sooner. 15 year-olds are already well into their “I’ll do whatever the hell I want” phase for the most part.
    – This essentially measured “pledges” made between 1995 and 1996 (pre-George W). Even if they were part of an “abstinence only” program it is highly likely that the curriculum has changed. Hell, they don’t even teach reading the same as they did 10 years ago, let alone something like this.
    – All kids in this study, who were defined as “conservative”, had lower rates of sexual activity than the general population. I have a hard time believing that the “pledgers” vs. “non-pledgers” were really getting different messages. Both probably got “condom” sex ed at school and “keep it in your pants” at church. Based on the results of this study you can’t say which worked.

    My point is this: This study is interesting, but y’all are idiots. I’m not a fan of “abstinence only” education, I just can’t stand misinterpreted research. Use your brains rather than jumping on the bandwagon, whether it be conservative, liberal, or somewhere in-between. Reporters almost always get things like this wrong. As Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

    How ironic that this thread is on the website “Discovery”…

  65. Xeero

    This is something that really surprised me. Up here in Canada, sex education (at least in my area) is done around 7th grade, so 12 or so years old.

    I was blown away when an interview with a Canadian sex educator who had moved on to the US in lieu of the abstinence programs and lack of any other sex education brought up this whole mess. Just seems strange, y’know? Ultimately, unless you plan to have your population never breed, people are gonna do the deed and it always seemed wise to educate them on it sooner than later. Heck even a “Wear a condom or it’ll fall off” would suffice in a lot of cases I bet 😛

  66. quasidog

    but James … its cool to jump on the bandwagon .. and be sarcastic about overused cliches and issues that inflate your quasi-scientific ego … and pat other like minded people on the back … right ? That means everyone else is an idiot … right ? What am I missing here ? Oh yeah … tact …

  67. Grand Lunar

    “It’s not a matter or morality. It’s a matter of fact.”

    Ain’t that the truth.

  68. inge

    David D: And really–did anyone here actually get useful info from a sex ed class?

    Not me — my mother taught junior high (equivalent) biology and I had read all the books in the house before I started school, plus I read teenager magazines from third grade on, so sex-ed classes taught me nothing I did not already know.

    Does any type of sex-ed actually reduce significantly the rates of teen pregnancies?

    My bet would be that for real efficiency you’d also need easily available contraception and a relaxed attitude to teenage sexuality, but one should not let the better be the enemy of the good. And information without the tools to act on it is probably not worse than tools but no manual (or a misleading one).

  69. Steve

    Here’s a good analysis of the flawed media coverage of this study, which Phil has uncritically endorsed.


  70. Jonathon

    Why is this on an astronomy blog?

    A conservative friend who is beginning to look at the skeptical movement for some guidance on science issues wandered in and looked at this thread and said to me “So the skeptical movement is really a bunch of militant liberals from what I can see…I doubt I’d be acceptable even if I do decide evolution is valid”.
    Congrats, you’ve fulfilled a stereotype! And lost a possible ally. Good work.

    Keep it on astronomy, Phil. If you want to do politics, create a politics blog.

  71. Todd W.


    While the main focus of this blog is astronomy, Phil also focuses on science in general and its misuse in the media, rational thinking, and critical thinking skills…oh, and Dr. Who and Star Trek.

    Phil’s political posts tend to be slightly left of center, but if you take a good look, he does knock liberals when they do or say dumb things, as well as praise conservatives when they do or say something smart.

    If your friend is really interested in finding guidance on science issues, then he would look past the posts that don’t have anything to do with science and just read the ones that are about science. If he gives up after reading just one post that disagrees with his politics, then he is apparently not that interested in expanding his horizons.

  72. Sili

    Newsflash!: This is Phil’s blog.

    He can write whatever the frag he pleases. Labels are not definitions! If he wanted to he could have called this place “Obama Sucks” and a written only about how to cultivate orchids.

    And frankly, what’s ‘militantly liberal’ about wanted scientific fact to influence politics and reduce financial waste?

    Nothing in this post is untrue. Ignorance Only does not reduce teen sex, but it does increase pregnancy and STI rates. If that’s what the conservatives want (and I’m not saying it’s not) they should say so.

    You can’t be a regular reader if you directed your conservative friend here for information on evolution. Francis Collins, Ken Miller and quite possibly James McGrath.

    We appreciate your concern.

  73. Sili

    * Francis Collins, Ken Miller and quite possibly James McGrath would be far better choices.

    Note to self: don’t type while angry.



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