“Abstinence-only” versus “safe sex” education in schools

A tip of the hat to BT who linked today to a Washington Post article by Rob Stein about a study of sex education programs (“Abstinence-only programs might work, study says”) with some interesting results.

Abstinence-only sex education in schools has taken a beating in the past from studies that purport to show it to be ineffective compared to other programs (so-called “safe sex” programs, et al.).  However, this study, which apparently focused on a particular program used with middle school students, showed much more success with abstinence-only education than other approaches — even better success than approaches that combine abstinence with “safe sex.”  Here is a summary of the approach and the results from the Washington Post’s article:

The study released Monday involved 662 African American students from four public middle schools in a city in the Northeastern United States. It was conducted between 2001 and 2004.

Students were randomly assigned to go through one of the following: an eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching them other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising. The abstinence-only portion involved a series of sessions in which instructors talked to students in small groups about their views about abstinence and their knowledge of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also conducted role-playing exercises and brainstorming sessions designed to correct misconceptions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, encourage abstinence and offer ways to resist pressure to have sex.

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did.

(You can read the entire article here.)

There is so much that could be said here, but I will confine my thoughts to a few bites:

  • The fact that only 1/3 of  the middle schoolers having sex within two years is the most positive outcome is sad.  Admittedly, some of these (some!) would be in high school, but still, I find that result appalling.
  • While 33% of those who went through abstinence-only education consequently began having sex, 42% of those who had the “comprehensive” education — meaning both abstinence plus “safe sex” instruction — began having sex within two years.  That is, the abstinence-only was much more successful.Still, for me, this isn’t the real kicker (though it is significant).  That’s coming next…
  • What was the control for this test?  That is, what was the “standard” against which the different approaches should be compared?  I would presume it was the “other ways to be healthy” education, which apparently did not include any “sex education,” at all.  And yet, compare the results of that “eating well and exercising” instruction to the “safe sex” instruction…  “Safe sex” focus = 52% of kids began having sex in two years.  “Other ways to be healthy” instruction = 47% of kids began having sex.What?!?Doesn’t this indicate the possibility that if one’s goal is to delay sexual behavior in children, it’s better not to teach them any “sex ed” at all than it is to teach them “safe sex” approaches?  That it’s better to teach them about eating carrots and counting carbs than using condoms?Of course, it is possible that those 47% who did begin sexual activity practiced more “unsafe sex” — I’m not discounting that, at all.  However, it does bolster the arguments of some that teaching kids “safe sex” in the public schools leads to increased promiscuity.

There’s much more to be said here (for instance, one should note that this “abstinence-only” program did not include moral judgments and stressed the concept of waiting “until you’re ready” versus waiting until marriage), and the cultural and religious backgrounds of the participants should be considered, as well, which would be difficult to do given the limited info present in the article.

Regardless, it’s nice to see a pro-abstinence piece in the news.  Frankly, it is rather a moot point for our family, given that we homeschool and are raising our children with our own “comprehensive sex education” approach based on Deuteronomy 6:6-7, but, still, it is nice to see positive study results in this direction for the public schools.

I’ve written before on the generally depressing mixture of schools and sex.  Here are links to some of those posts:

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6 thoughts on ““Abstinence-only” versus “safe sex” education in schools

  1. Hi again, Mr. Smith!

    I have an issue of [a particular magazine whose title has been removed by the Masked Editor] that has a piece on an “abstinence-based” program in Africa (Kenya, I think). Like such programs here, it’s been derided, but according to the article, in fact it’s the only program that’s really worked there. (I could cite the exact issue, but I’d have to warm up my in-house steam shovel to dig it out of the hard-copy archives.)

    I guess we humans are slow learners with regard to the efficacy of God’s way of life. No surprises there, are there?

    Happy Sabbath to you,
    “Johanan Rakkav” (יוחנן רכב)

  2. Howdy, Mr. Wheeler, and my apologies for the edit. I get pretty persnickety about accidentally advertising certain other publications. 🙂 However, I would appreciate the reference that may be given in that article for future use (though I would hate to ask you to break out the steam shovel!), so I may look it up, myself.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. And here I thought your love of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s with at least a little bit of footnoting would override, um, those other considerations. 😀

    Nevertheless I appreciate the point. And I’ll see if I can find that reference, which I’ll send to you privately (should I find it) at your LCG e-mail address.

  4. rakkav

    P.S. (and you may edit these comments accordingly): I can’t find the article in my stacks. This may be a case of the common Myers-Briggs ENFP affliction of “I read it in a book (or a magazine) somewhere”. 😦 I do think it was in…you know…but I can’t find it. Happy hunting!

  5. ABC News’s report on this study noted the abstinence rate is even lower when parents have “the talk” with their childen about sexual matters.

    My mom gave me a set of four books on the topic to read — and never really had “the talk.” Yet I’m still single and abstaining today, at (dare I admit this?) age 51. God has ways of shutting doors along these lines.

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